Astros looking to build on momentum
Houston hoping vets hold up over bear of a second half
HOUSTON -- You have probably heard this one before. The Astros get off to a slow start in April and May before clawing their way back to respectability at the All-Star break and putting themselves in position to contend in the National League Central division.
It's a formula the Astros rode to the playoffs in 2004 and '05, and they nearly pulled it off in '06 and '08 before faltering in the final weeks of those seasons. After starting 19-28 this year, they won 25 of 41 to finish off the first half and have their eyes on a playoff race.
But if Houston is going to have another second-half surge, it's going to need the starting pitching to hold up. Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez have been solid at the top of the rotation, but the rest of the starters -- Brian Moehler, Russ Ortiz and Mike Hampton -- are on the wrong side of 35 and can't afford a drop-off as the innings accrue in August and September.
The offense, meanwhile, needs to find more consistency. Houston has been among the NL's best teams in batting average since the end of May, but the bats are still having trouble scoring runs and getting hits with runners in scoring position.
"All things considered, I think we're in a pretty good position," general manager Ed Wade said. "We've been inconsistent offensively, and we've left a lot of opportunities out there. But that being said, the pleasant part of things is the starting rotation has stepped up and done exactly what we had hoped and expected it was capable of doing, especially at the top, with Roy and Wandy."
Club MVP: Lance Berkman is hitting .271 with 18 homers and 55 RBIs. He leads the team in homers, RBIs, slugging percentage, walks and on-base percentage. Sure, he hit .162 in April, but he's hitting over .300 with 13 homers and 45 RBIs since, and perhaps it's no surprise the Astros have played better since he heated up.
Call him "Ace": This spot is normally reserved for Oswalt, who turned his season around by going 5-2 over his final 17 starts entering the break. But Rodriguez has been more consistent, going 8-6 with a 2.96 ERA with one shutout in 18 first-half starts.
Greatest strength: The bullpen was supposed to be the strength of the team before injuries set in. The Astros are close to the bottom in the NL in runs scored, so the nod goes to starting pitching. Oswalt and Rodriguez are a solid 1-2 punch, while Ortiz and Hampton have at times shown flashes of their past glories.
Biggest problem: Offense. The Astros have some big-name stars in Berkman, Miguel Tejada, Ivan Rodriguez, Carlos Lee and newly minted All-Star Hunter Pence, but they've struggled to score runs and have really had a hard time coming up with timely hits.
Biggest surprise: Michael Bourn. This was basically a do-or-die year for Bourn, the speedy center fielder who was part of the Brad Lidge trade. His first full season in the Majors in 2008 was a disappointment, but the Astros never gave up on him. Bourn hit .286 in the first half, with an NL-leading 32 stolen bases and a .360 on-base percentage.
Team needs: The Astros aren't getting much offensive production from the third-base platoon of Geoff Blum and Jeff Keppinger, but the situation isn't dire enough for Wade to make a move. Like most teams, the Astros could use more starting pitching, especially if the innings pile up on the arms of often-injured Ortiz and Hampton.
He said it: "The economics, the way they are, and the fact any deals of magnitude would cost you dearly with younger players, by in large the group that's here right now -- with the exception of a couple of moves we think we're capable of making at Triple-A if the need arises -- represents what we're going forward with." -- Wade
Mark your calendar: The second half of the season is shaping up as a bear. The Astros open with four games in Los Angeles (July 16-19) and have road series with the Cubs (July 27-30) and St. Louis (July 31-Aug. 2). The Cardinals (July 20-22), Mets (July 24-26), Giants (Aug. 3-5) and Brewers (Aug. 7-9) are the first teams to come to Houston in the second half.
Fearless second-half prediction: The rigors of the schedule and an aging roster will catch up with the Astros, who will fall out of contention heading into the final month.
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.