What will it take for the Astros to get the wild card?
By JOSE DE JESUS ORTIZ
Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle
Manager Phil Garner knows there's a crowded field in the National League wild-card race, but he's plotting the same course the Astros have taken the last two years on their road to franchise postseason history.
The Astros have a chance to start trimming their deficit in the wild-card race tonight in the opener of a three-game home series against the Cincinnati Reds.
The Reds are second in the NL Central and first in the wild-card race, five games ahead of the Astros.
"I thought they improved their pitching staff," Garner said of the Reds. "Bronson Arroyo has made a big difference on their club. I think now picking up that kid (reliever Gary Majewski) from Washington is going to help their bullpen a little bit. I think they're going to be a tough ballclub."
As trite as it might seem, the Astros' plan for the wild-card race is basic: "One at-bat at a time, one pitch at a time, one game at a time."
Sounds simple, but it's not. Nonetheless, the Astros have displayed an ability to sprint from way behind the pack to finish ahead in the wild-card race the last two years.
That's not to say Garner doesn't realize his slumping club must play better. The Astros just went 4-6 on a 10-game trip through Florida, Chicago, and New York. Including losses to the St. Louis Cardinals in the three games before the All-Star break, the Astros are in a 4-9 rut.
Astros owner Drayton McLane, general manager Tim Purpura and Garner have been busy searching for answers and altering the coaching staff, starting rotation, lineup and bullpen since the All-Star break. The manager, coaches and team have all been yelled at. But encouragement has been offered as well.
Staying in the moment
"We try not to stress too much," Garner said. "We try to add a little levity with the way you address it publicly. We've addressed it about as honestly as we can in our meetings with our players.
"The trick is to get them to focus on what they're supposed to do on any one at-bat. What matters is not what's happened in the last 10 games, 20 games. What matters is one at-bat. If you're 0-for-50 or 0-for-1,000 in this one situation, it doesn't matter. You have one at-bat."
Garner stresses discipline, discipline, discipline.
"You need to become better disciplined at the plate," he said "Discipline means that if you're 0-for-50, it doesn't matter, and you still do what you know you're supposed to do in a given situation to produce the results that you need.
"So if it's to get a ball in the air, then you know you have to stay through the ball and hit it to the middle of the diamond. That's discipline. You know you need to make contact. Focus on that."
The Reds, meanwhile, are making a charge at the postseason. On July 6, they filled a big void by acquiring closer Eddie Guardado from the Seattle Mariners, which has led to improvement from Todd Coffey in a setup role.
A day after the Astros acquired slugger Aubrey Huff from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on July 12, Reds GM Wayne Krivsky pulled off a blockbuster trade to further bolster the bullpen. Majewski, lefthander Bill Bray, shortstop Royce Clayton, infielder Brendan Harris and righthander Daryl Thompson were acquired from the Washington Nationals in exchange for outfielder Austin Kearns, shortstop Felipe Lopez and righthander Ryan Wagner.
"They've gone from a team that's high risk/high reward — a lot of strikeouts and home runs — to where they put the ball in play a little better," Garner said of the Reds. "I think they're just a better ballclub."
Majewski got much of the attention in the trade with the Nationals, but the lefthanded Bray has been very strong, too.
The Reds may have changed the course of their season on March 20, when they acquired Arroyo from the Boston Red Sox for slugger Wily Mo Peña. While Peña has spent most of the season on the disabled list, Arroyo is 9-6 with a 2.92 ERA and made the NL All-Star team.
Reds' rotation improved
Arroyo and Aaron Harang (10-6, 3.72 ERA) have been the 1-2 punch the Reds' rotation hasn't had in several years. Harang will start tonight against Roger Clemens, and Arroyo will start Wednesday against Andy Pettitte. Righthander Elizardo Ramirez, who will start Thursday against Taylor Buchholz, has been much better and more consistent than his 3-6 record and 4.43 ERA suggest.
The Reds would be stronger if lefthander Eric Milton, who is in the second year of a two-year, $24 million deal with an option, had given them more than his 6-6 record and 5.47 ERA.
"They've hung in there really well this year," Astros slugger Lance Berkman said of the Reds. "I know that they have a very good lineup. That was the thing I thought about them when the season started: 'Hey, they've got a great lineup, but I don't know if their pitching is good enough on a consistent basis to keep them in it.'
"They've actually had some good starting pitching, and I think that's the main reason they've been able to hang around. You add to that they have a very solid lineup. I think it makes for a tough ballclub."
The Astros can see the Reds atop the wild-card standings, and they want to make up some ground during this three-game series.
First things first, though.
"Just for us to get at five games under (.500) is a bad situation, because we're better than that," Garner said. "We've got to get back to .500 before we can even look at the standings."
No bullpen bashing
If the Astros' bullpen had not combined for a 9.00 ERA before the All-Star break in games Roy Oswalt started, Oswalt might already have 10 or 11 victories.
But Oswalt never ripped on his relievers. He didn't even whine after they blew a seven-run lead in two innings against the White Sox on June 25, the night closer Brad Lidge blew it in a non-save situation, giving up a grand slam in the ninth.
After Sunday's 8-4 win over the Mets, Oswalt just shrugged while Lidge jokingly complained loudly that Monday's headlines wouldn't read "Bullpen saves day" in regard to their 3 1/3 scoreless innings of relief. As Oswalt gave his postgame news conference, he could not ignore Lidge's loud laments.
But Oswalt wouldn't bite.
"They came in and did a good job," Oswalt said of Dan Wheeler, Trever Miller, Chad Qualls and Lidge. "I only threw 5 2/3 (innings). Them coming in and picking up that many innings and not letting a run score is big.
"They've been doing a great job lately. They've been coming in and getting outs and not letting a lot of guys get on. We'll see if we can get on a roll."
JOSE DE JESUS ORTIZ