Houston, We Have Liftoff With a weekend sweep of the Cardinals, the Astros took command in the NL Central and gave a football town reason to believe in its baseball team

September 21, 2003

Baseball in Houston is a cup of tea at Starbucks, an order of
salmon at The Palm or a car ride through Venice. It has an odd
ring to it. Forty-one years after the major leagues came to
Houston and pandered to Texans by naming the expansion team after
a firearm--the Colt .45s--the fourth-largest city in America is a
backwater outpost on the baseball map. ¶ "It's not a baseball
town," says Billy Wagner, the closer for the team that has been
known as the Astros since 1965. "Football is king. It's hard to
compare it to St. Louis, Chicago and other baseball towns where
the fans are knowledgeable about the game. Sometimes here they're
not sure when to cheer and when to boo."

Says Houston general manager Gerry Hunsicker, "Last month we had
a series against the Chicago Cubs with first place on the line,
and we had nowhere near sellout crowds. Baseball has always taken
a backseat to football here."

The Astros, of course, have been easy to overlook, even when
dressed in those famously loud-striped 1980s uniforms inspired by
laundry detergent boxes. No city has waited more seasons for its
first World Series than Houston. Worse still, the Astros haven't
won a playoff series of any kind, losing all seven while dropping
22 of 30 postseason games.

Last Saturday night, however, a roar went up in Houston that
seemed to echo across all those empty years. A sellout crowd at
Minute Maid Park stood and cheered, and this time the bellowing
wasn't in response to the announcement of college football
scores, the appropriately twangy version of Deep in the Heart of
Texas during the seventh-inning stretch, or the prices of natural
gas, crude oil, unleaded gas and heating oil that are posted like
out-of-town scores on a rightfield message board. This time it
was purely about baseball, as Wagner whizzed a 99-mph fastball
past an awestruck Scott Rolen to finish a 2-0 win over the St.
Louis Cardinals.

Not only did the victory keep Houston in first place in the
National League Central and virtually remove St. Louis from
postseason contention, but it also gave Astros fans reason to
believe that their baseball team might--hold on to your 10-gallon
hat, pardners--command their attention deep into football season.
Ace righthander Roy Oswalt, making his second start after missing
six weeks with a strained groin, dominated the Cardinals for
seven innings. That outing followed a 14-5 win the previous
night, in which righthander Wade Miller permitted St. Louis just
two hits and two runs over six innings.

It was only the second time this year that Oswalt, who hit 95 mph
on the radar gun, and Miller, who touched 97, won back-to-back
games. The combined line for the Houston rockets: 13 innings, six
hits, two runs, 13 strikeouts and one energized clubhouse.
"That's the best they've been all year," catcher Brad Ausmus said
after Saturday's win, "and it's the best possible time for it."

The Astros completed the sweep with a 4-1 win on Sunday, leaving
them two games ahead of the Cubs and 5 1/2 up on the Cards with
13 games to play: three in Colorado against the Rockies (who were
45-27 at home) and three in St. Louis, then a final homestand
with three games against the NL West-leading San Francisco Giants
and four against the Milwaukee Brewers. The Cubs, meanwhile, get
a steady diet of cupcakes for their final 13 games: the New York
Mets, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds.

Until the weekend Oswalt and Miller had been the source of
anxiety for Houston. On Sept. 8, when Oswalt (8-5) came off the
DL for the third time this season, he allowed four runs in five
innings of an 8-4 win over the Brewers. Miller (13-12) had thrown
so poorly in his previous start--his fastball was clocked at 87
mph--that Hunsicker says he feared the pitcher was hurt. Miller
wrote off the outing to a "dead arm," a common affliction for
pitchers over a long season, and underwent four days of massages
and hot and cold treatments to promote blood flow.

Without Oswalt and Miller in top form, this is just another
forgettable Houston team. Though the Astros ranked fourth in the
league in runs at week's end, they "have no players having big
years," Hunsicker says. "Some are having average years, and a lot
are below average. The offense is where the money is on this
team, and those players haven't performed up to expectations."

Oswalt and Miller, however, possess the dominating stuff that
could take over a postseason series. Oswalt frustrated St. Louis
hitters with an almost unheard-of 27-mph difference between his
slow curve, which seemed to float and then vanish like a puff of
smoke, and his laser of a fastball, which never went down the
middle of the plate. Miller, in addition to his giddyap fastball,
throws a parabolic curve that last Friday caught a jelly-legged
Albert Pujols looking at strike three. Oswalt and Miller are a
combined 91-48 lifetime, including 48-19 in their home park.

"The expectation around Houston is that getting to the postseason
is not that big a deal, that we have to go further to be labeled
a success," Hunsicker says. "But in reality, those of us in the
business recognize how difficult it is to get into the playoffs
and, if you do, advancing to the World Series is very difficult.
A lot of things have to go your way, and you have to get hot at
the right time."

Houston is accustomed to getting its Astros kicked. Twice in 1980
they were six outs away from the World Series, only to blow,
respectively, two-run and three-run eighth-inning leads to the
Philadelphia Phillies in Games 4 and 5 of the NL Championship
Series. Centerfielder Craig Biggio, 37, and first baseman Jeff
Bagwell, 35, who rank 1-2 in franchise history for games played,
have come up empty four times in October, losing all but two of
their 14 postseason games since 1997.

The Astros have such a low profile--the most attention they've
received in recent years has been because of their ill-fated
association with Enron, whose name was originally on Houston's
new ballpark--that 13 of the team's last 14 postseason games have
been played in the afternoon. The not-ready-for-prime-time
players have had to battle odd starting times and twilight
conditions.

"We'd like to win a postseason series for Bagwell and Biggio
because they're Hall of Famers and you don't know how many more
chances they'll have," Miller says. "Hopefully I'll be here for
many years, but I'd rather not be around five to 10 more years
and have teammates saying the same about me."

Says Bagwell, "If we get to the postseason, the middle four
hitters in our lineup have to get hot and the starters have to
carry us to the seventh inning and let our bullpen take over.
That can happen."

Bagwell, second baseman Jeff Kent, leftfielder Lance Berkman and
rightfielder Richard Hidalgo--the heart of the order--had
combined to hit a subpar 103 homers at week's end. Bagwell led
the team with 35, though he suffers from an arthritic right
shoulder that requires a painful cortisone shot about every six
weeks and prevents him from taking pregame fielding practice.
Also, he sometimes has trouble "getting on top of pitches" that
require him to raise the shoulder during his swing.

Bagwell homered on Friday night off Cardinals righthander Woody
Williams, the shot flying into the railroad tracks above the
leftfield seats. The next night he drove an 0-and-2 fastball from
ace righty Matt Morris into the rightfield seats, the first homer
allowed by Morris on such a count all year. Unbeknownst to
Bagwell, both fourth-inning home runs earned a free chalupa for
all fans in attendance on those nights (78,068 total) who
presented their ticket stubs at Taco Bell the next day.

As for the Cardinals, they were reeling even before they got
their chalupas handed to them in Houston. St. Louis was leading
the Central at the start of September but lost four of five
heated games to the Cubs at Wrigley Field. It was a draining
series that started the Cards on a 4-10 flameout. "Mysterious is
the word I would use," manager Tony La Russa says of his team's
collapse.

The Astros, meanwhile, seemed to be peaking at the right time,
even if that time is football season. Author Nigel Goslin wrote
in 1967 that "Houston is six suburbs in search of a center." Not
much has changed. The six-county metro area is larger than
Connecticut, and the downtown area near Minute Maid Park is
dotted with crumbling, condemned buildings. The ballpark, though,
was abuzz last weekend.

Saturday's sellout was the team's sixth in 2003. (The club
expects to draw around 2.5 million, about the same as last year,
though down from 3 million when the ballpark opened in 2000.) The
victory clinched the fourth straight series win for the Astros,
who were 10-3 in those series, including a 4-1 contribution from
Oswalt and Miller.

Maybe the stretch run will turn out to be another empty promise.
Or maybe the happy noise rising from Crawford Street was, 41
years after baseball came to town, a new beginning. At the very
least it was the sound of baseball that mattered, deep in the
heart of Texas.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL CROWD PLEASER Bagwell, the poster child for the Astros' postseason futility, homered twice against St. Louis before packed houses. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DARREN CARROLL SMOKIN' With seven dominant innings last Saturday, the injury-plagued Oswalt finally looked like the front-of-the-rotation fireballer that Houston needs. COLOR PHOTO: BRETT COOMER/AP PIVOTAL Adam Everett (far left), Kent (12) and the Astros doubled up the slumping Cardinals in last Friday's 14-5 victory.

"If we get to the postseason," says Bagwell, "the middle four
hitters in our lineup HAVE TO GET HOT. That can happen."

SI.com
Tom Verducci's Insider column, every Tuesday at si.com/baseball.

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