As Zach Levine points out, today marks the 15th anniversary of the MLB strike that cancelled the 1994 World Series. I was 14 that year, and I had been nagging my mom for years to attend an Opening Day at the Astrodome. ’94 was the first (and last) time it ever happened, and of the countless games I’ve been to over the years, that one still stands out above all the rest – the Astros fell behind the greatest Montreal Expos team ever, 5-3 in the 12th, only for Ken Caminiti to cap a game-winning rally in the bottom of the inning, and Houston won 6-5.
Fast forward to the strike in August of that year, and then the announcement a few weeks later that the postseason was cancelled; I remember feeling cheated that the season I watched get started would never get to finish. Houston ended the year a half game out of first place, and Jeff Bagwell was never as good before or since. I remember thinking that Montreal fans must have felt cheated even more.
I’ve always been a die-hard baseball fan, but the August ’94 strike sandwiched in between the Houston Rockets’ June ’94 & ’95 NBA titles marked the only time when another sport stole first place in my heart. The city of Houston had never had a major sports championship before (or since), so it was a perfect storm of circumstances. It took Charles Barkley, Scottie Pippen, and the Astros’ three consecutive Central Division titles in ’97-’99 to bring me all the way back to baseball.
15 years later and the Astros are coming off another heartbreaking loss, but I’ll be grateful that there’s another game tonight. I hope 1994 is a mistake that baseball never repeats.
The Astros have matched their season-high winning streak at two straight, for the third time. A win on Sunday softened the blow of a frustrating weekend versus Milwaukee, then Cincinnati was typical Astro Chow last night. Aaron Harang is usually another tasty dish for Houston, so they’ll try for an April-best third straight W tonight.
Houston’s other active team also won by one on Sunday, and they’ll try tonight to do what no Houston team has done since the Astros’ NL pennant back in ’05 – advance in the playoffs.
I know this is exceedingly brief without much to say, but work has most of my attention this week. Continued Houston wins would be a great distraction.
Well, the starting pitching has been good. VERY good. What everyone thought would be Houston’s greatest weakness going into the season has actually been the greatest strength so far. The problem is that the offense – believed to be a strength – has averaged exactly three runs per game to this point. A 3.00 ERA is generally considered to be very good. But if you’re only scoring three runs a game yourself, you’re asking your pitchers to be better than very good in order to win. The starters have actually been exactly that lately, but certain parts of the bullpen have been shaky, and the anemic offense has left them no margin for error. So we have Oswalt, Paulino and Hampton all deliver quality starts and end up with no decisions as the team loses late. It’s easy to blame the bullpen, but it’s not like anyone out there had a Moehler-esque outing that left the Astros buried.
The optimistic view is to say that we’ve only had three games so far that weren’t realistically winnable (Moehler’s two starts & Albert Pujols Day). This team could have received exactly the pitching they’ve received so far and easily be 10-3 right now. The frustrating thing is that they’re not 10-3, or 8-5, or even 6-7. They’re 4-9, because anyone not named Hunter or Miguel or Geoff/Jeff can’t get a hit.
The further optimism is to say that guys named Lance, Carlos, Kaz and even Ivan won’t keep hitting this poorly, which is more than likely true. It would just be nice if they warmed up sooner than later so that missed opportunities like these don’t come back to haunt when more difficult challenges inevitably arrive.
At least the Rockets had a laugher over the weekend. They’ll try to go up 2-0 tonight.
The Astros West (aka LA Dodgers) roll into town tonight with that 10-3 record the Astros wish they had. Interesting that of Houston’s four free agent departures this winter, three landed in Los Angeles (Ausmus, Wolf, Loretta). Only non-tendered Ty Wigginton went elsewhere, and he signed with the Astros East (aka Baltimore Orioles), joining only six other ex-Astros on their 40-man roster. I’m looking for Russ Ortiz to be sharper in his second start of the season.
This entry suffers from A.D.D., so bear with me.
One of today’s top baseball headlines on my Yahoo homepage: A-ROD HITS 3 HOMERS IN BATTING PRACTICE. Really? BP homers are headline material now? I want to know how many homers Big Puma hit in BP today – anybody got that stat? Geez. I don’t mean this as ragging on A-Rod; he was actually one of my favorites back in his Seattle days, though he lost most of my respect when he signed for megabucks in Texas, then lost the rest when he signed for bigger megabucks in NY. I still think he’s an extraordinarily talented athlete, even without steroids. I’m just shaking my head at the mega-media spotlight… Yankees batting practice gets national headlines while most other teams only get headlines when they play against the Yankees (or the Red Sox, or the Mets). Who knew anything about Carlos Beltran while he played in Kansas City?
The Astros have done a good job getting on with the rest of their season since the 1-6 start and the odd mid-series day off on Tuesday. The math is pretty simple: subtract those first seven games and you’ve got 155 left on the schedule. That’s 31 turns through the rotation. If your starters are good enough to win you three out of each five games, on average, that’s 93 wins, plus that one from the first seven. 94 wins has been good enough for the NL Wild Card 12 out of 14 seasons so far, including all of the last six. Is an Oswalt-Hampton-Ortiz-Rodriguez-Moehler lineup good enough to net you three out of any given five games? It’s easier with names like Pettitte and Clemens in there, but probably. The question is if they can do it consistently. And if they can stay healthy.
Which, of course, Brian Moehler now isn’t. Neither is Doug Brocail. And Kaz Matsui hasn’t played in the last two games, and likely won’t play until at least Saturday. Of those three, the one not on the DL (Matsui) actually concerns me the most, because I think the Astros have the least depth behind him. I wouldn’t qualify any of their injuries as disastrous, though, so I’m not that worried yet. Moehler is more replaceable than Mike Hampton or Russ Ortiz.
Speaking of Hampton – for whatever reason, it hadn’t really hit me until yesterday how nice it is to have Hampy back on the team. At least for me, as a fan. And not because he pitched so well yesterday, either; the nostalgia hit in the morning. I’ve gone on before about how Pudge Rodriguez is a throwback to my childhood heroes, and how I miss those like Luis Gonzalez and Curt Schilling that are gone now. Mike Hampton is one of those guys, too. And unlike Gonzo or Pudge or Schill, Hampy did have his best years in a Houston uniform. He was never my favorite pitcher during his previous run here – that was Jose Lima – and I’ll confess I was glad that Houston didn’t get saddled with that horrible contract. I didn’t think that much of Houston re-signing him last November, either, and nostalgia never hit during spring training or his start against St. Louis. It just hit me yesterday. It’s gotta be strange and a bit sad for him being back, that everyone not Doug Brocail that he played with before is now gone. But I’m still glad he’s here, and I’m cheering for a big year now more than ever.
Speaking of Matsui – the guy that seemed most likely next in line behind him, Drew Sutton, got shipped to Cincinnati today to complete the Jeff Keppinger deal. Don’t like it. I still think Keppinger helps the team out a lot – he played Matsui’s 2B today – and he’s certainly proven valuable already. I wouldn’t necessarily undo the deal. I just wish it didn’t have to come at the cost of one of our few upper-level prospects. I’ll be cheering for Sutton to make it big in Cincy, but it will be tinged with regret if he does.
As a Houston sports fan, I can’t ignore that the only franchise to bring the city a major sports championship starts their postseason on Saturday in Portland. Basketball was the only other sport I ever displayed any long-term interest in, and that faded after Houston brought in Charles Barkley. But I’ll admit that this is the most excited I’ve been about a Rockets squad since the 1995 Phi Slamma Jamma title team. I really think they’re better with Ron Ron and without T-Mac. (Sure, Artest is crazy, but we had Vernon Maxwell before!) I was admittedly very disappointed at their inability to close the deal against Dallas last night, which ended up costing them home court; it seemed like Portland wanted it more. But I still think this could end up being a very special group. Go Rockets!
Michael Bourn has done well so far at earning my confidence. Jason Michaels has not. Pudge seems to have caught whatever the other catchers had during spring training, but I think he’s primarily afflicted with a case of Trying Too Hard. He’ll come around.
It’s interesting to note that the only two starters that haven’t helped the Astros win yet this young season are the injured Moehler, and Roy Oswalt. But Roy starts tomorrow at home versus the Reds, whom he owns, so I expect great things. The Astros have owned the Reds in general for the last several years, so I’d like to see them take three out of four before the Ausmus-led Dodgers roll into town.