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Late Bloomers

   by Scott Spreitzer - 08/16/2006

It may have been delayed a bit, but the hot streak that many pundits and handicappers expected from the Houston Astros right after the All-Star break finally ignited in the past several days.

Entering this past weekend, the Astros had won four games in a row and eight of their last 10. They did stub their toe against the Pads, and it's true that the last two spots in the starting rotation could present question marks for the rest of the season. But the first three are starting to look like the BIG THREE once again.

ROY OSWALT is having his typical season. After dominating Pittsburgh the other night, Oswalts ERA for the season stood at 3.27 on about six and half innings pitched per start. A strikeout to walk ratio of 109/29 shows that Oswalt has been dominating foes all year.

ROGER CLEMENS is working his way back into the kind of form that will provide a big boost in the final six weeks of the season. In the first 10 starts of his abbreviated season, Clemens posted a stellar ERA of 2.24. For now, he's only lasting about 6 innings a start. Hey, any team would take that! If he can boost that up to Oswalt's range, the Astros will be getting ace caliber production from two different starters.

ANDY PETTITTE has shown a tendency of pitching well when Clemens is around, and poorly when he's not. That could be because Clemens helps him with mechanics, or because Pettitte feels less pressure when he's a middle of the rotation guy rather than someone that's got to carry a heavy load. Whatever the reason, Clemens is around, so Pettitte is getting people out again!

Last 3 starts:

2.66 ERA on almost 7 IP per start with a Strikeout/Walk ratio of 24/4.

Last 8 starts:

3.22 ERA on and average of over 6 IP with a Strikeout/Walk ratio of 54/16.

So, when handicapping Pettitte's upcoming games, don't look at the full season numbers. He's not the mediocre guy who seemed lost in space the first half of the season. He's back to being Andy Pettitte again. And, that means the Astros are poised to make their annual run at postseason play.

*They've got the strongest front 3 in the National League.

*They're facing a bunch of Wildcard contenders who are struggling to play .500 ball this year.

*None of those teams has anything that approaches Oswalt/Clemens/Pettitte in terms of recent form.

*None of those teams has anything that approaches Oswalt/Clemens/Pettitte in terms of pennant race or postseason experience.

*Houston is within clear striking distance of slumping St. Louis, and could conceivably make a run at the NL Central, even after a lethargic first four months of the season.

Sharp handicappers must pay very close attention to this team in the coming days. I've watched this team close the season very strong with these players and this manager the past few seasons. That's an established track record of late season success, and late season value at the Las Vegas moneylines. The oddsmakers never believe that Houston is able to get THIS good in the last two months after killing time in the first 90-110 games.

The pundits who said you could stick a fork in the Astros about two weeks ago can smell some crow cooking in the oven!

Am I worried about Houston's offense? Sure. It's nothing to write home about and came up short on Saturday and Sunday. But history has shown that great frontline pitching can make a lot of other problems go away. The hitters know they don't have to score 5-6 runs a night if they want to win. They've just got to get some crooked numbers on the scoreboard, then let the workhorses harvest the wins.

In the last 45 games of the season, somebody in the NL is likely go 30-15 on their way to the postseason. I wouldn't be surprised if two teams are able to pull that off (one in the NL Central, one in the NL West). Focusing on the full season newspaper standings too much could prevent you from taking advantage of that.

Are the Astros a sure thing to stay hot? No way. An injury to any of the "big three", and suddenly there are three question marks in the rotation. If Father Time suddenly grabs Roger Clemens by the throat, then the confidence of Clemens and Pettitte could get shaky. No sure things in sports.

But, there's a track record here with the same important guys doing the same important things. Smash Mouth handicapping is a lot of fun when you can smash your man with things that work every season.

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