With J.R. Towles gone, the Astros needed a new scapegoat to blame for their rotten season. It kind of appeared that Hunter Pence was turning into the one that Brad Mills was looking at for that role, as it was Pence that Mills has been continuously benching because of his struggles at the plate.
Yet it was Pence who came through for the Astros on Sunday, delivering a walk-off double in the 11th inning yesterday to give the Astros the come from behind 4-3 win over the San Diego Padres.
It's been a tough season for Pence as he's struggled with the bat and struggled with keeping playing time. It's hard to understand the thinking behind the continued "resting" of Pence while others who have failed more often, Carlos Lee, Pedro Feliz, and Lance Berkman, have continued to earn pretty continuous playing time.
But unlike the others, Pence has continued to provide a steady defensive presence, and yesterday, Pence was three-for-five with the bat, while getting a single, a double, a homer, and two of the team's four RBI.
The win was a nice thing for the Astros. Even if it did come in extra innings, wasting another solid Roy Oswalt effort.
But the win makes the Astros just 10-21 on the season. They have, far and away, the worst record in the National League, and they owe a huge thank you to the Baltimore Orioles for keeping them from having the worst record in the majors.
The Astros are the worst offensive team in the majors, having scored just 85 runs in 31 games. The only team that's scored less runs is the Seattle Mariners, and the Mariners fired their hitting coach Sunday in an effort to address their struggles.
But the job of Astros hitting coach Sean Berry appears to be safe, even though no team in the majors has a worse on-base percentage.
The Berry defenders, and there suddenly appear to be a lot of them in the media, claim that he's not the one responsible for building a club so lacking in offensive talent.
And there is some validity to putting the blame on Ed Wade for assembling a grouping of guys who have a problem with taking a walk, or with making a pitcher have to build a big pitch count. But at some point, Berry has to work with these guys and get them to start working at actually getting on base, and making a pitcher have to earn a win.
And that's something that's just not happening.
It's something that's never happened under Berry's watch. The Astros have been an awful offensive team under Berry, and even when he supposedly had better talent with which to work. Somebody on the team has to get the batters to not swing at everything that comes their way, and the person who should be working with the players on their offensive approach is the hitting coach.
There's generally not much a hitting coach can do with established players like Berkman, Lee, or Feliz. But the coach should have some ability to mold the youngsters, and to work on their approach at the plate, but despite Pence being one of my favorite guys on the team, his plate discipline, in his fourth season in the big leagues, is just as bad now as it was when he came up.
It's up to the hitting coach to help Pence adjust to the pitching, and Pence hasn't been doing that. J.R. Towles hasn't been able to make that adjustment -- though since he's the team scapegoat, Berry gets to take a pass on his failures with Towles.
Ultimately, the blame has to rest with GM Ed Wade for continuously going after guys like Pedro Feliz and Kazuo Matsui instead of guys like Orlando Hudson and Orlando Cabrera, guys who are excellent on defense, have speed, and have shown a consistent ability to get on base, whether by hit or walk.
But until Wade starts bringing guys who can do that, then Berry has to find a way to work with guys who have no plate discipline. And Berry has yet to display that he's capable of doing that.
Roy Oswalt, Felipe Paulino, and the rest of the pitching staff have been keeping the Astros completive these past several weeks. The offense hasn't. Something needs to be done before Pence's career is forever defined by untapped potential and a tendency to lunge at outside breaking pitches in the dirt.
It's easy to see Pence as the problem. It's easy, but wrong. Pence can have many more games like what he had yesterday. But until something is done to make Pence and his teammates exercise more discipline at the plate, then the team is doomed to more games like the Friday's 7-0 loss to the Padres and Saturday's 2-1 loss to the Padres -- both games where the Astros were lucky to scrape together three hits
The man responsible for doing that is Sean Berry. And he's failing. Badly.