Astros making usual second-half move

Updated: July 22, 2009

Al Bello/Getty Images

Roy Oswalt has won each of his past three decisions and not lost a game since June 19.

It seems like every year we forget about how much of a push the Houston Astros make in the second half. They looked like a completely clueless team at the end of May, when the Astros were 20-29 and 9½ games back in the NL Central. They were completely off everyone's radar. We should have known a run was coming, given that Houston's average record after the break in the past five seasons is 42-31. And the run has come -- the Astros have trimmed that 9½-game deficit all the way down to one game. This team doesn't stop battling, yet it hasn't played in October since its 2005 World Series run.

You look at the NL Central this year and certainly no one is running away with it. The Cubs, despite putting an end to the Phillies' 10-game winning streak with a win Wednesday, haven't been nearly the same team they were a year ago. The Cardinals haven't been able to create any real separation from the rest of the pack. The Astros have fought their way to a 49-46 record and are now legitimate contenders. It all starts with their ace, Roy Oswalt.

In his career, Oswalt has been impressive in the second half, posting a 68-20 record after the All-Star break. He's a hard thrower with great durability, a guy built to keep you in games. And that's exactly what he did Wednesday, locking in a duel with St. Louis' Chris Carpenter. He kept the Astros in the game, and Houston came to post a 4-3 win. Sure, Oswalt got a no-decision, but he kept his team within striking distance, and when you have that type of guy to anchor your rotation, the chances of winning every five days are tremendous.

Wandy Rodriguez gives you that shot, as well. He's 10-6 with a 2.72 ERA and has added yet another dimension to this ballclub's rotation.

The Astros have an advantage over the other teams competing in that division; they have a prolific leadoff man. Michael Bourn, who came to Houston in the Brad Lidge trade, quickly is becoming one of the game's most enticing players. He has a .354 OBP and is leading the National League in stolen bases (35) and triples (8). His presence on the bases gives RBI men Miguel Tejada, Carlos Lee and Lance Berkman chances to put up big offensive numbers. We've seen guys such as Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins bring a jolt to teams; it's without question that Bourn can do the same for Houston.

We've seen the Killer B's in Houston, but imagine if they had Killer Roys in the front of their rotation? If Drayton McLane and Ed Wade are looking for a boost, they need to involve themselves in the Roy Halladay sweepstakes. Having the righty Roys pitch on back-to-back days will guarantee you at least one win, if not two. Add in Rodriguez and Brian Moehler, and things are looking pretty good. Houston does have a history of trading for an ace at the deadline. Randy Johnson was brought in as a rental in 1998. Even if a team such as the Phillies lands Halladay, there is always a chance to get into talks with the Indians for Cliff Lee. If McLane is willing to take the chance on either guy, it certainly would be worth it.

Unless the Astros can make a trade, their chances for October are slim. They will continue to push along like they always do. Their middle-of-the-order hitters (Berkman, Lee, Tejada) are among the best in baseball. Then you add in veterans such as Ivan Rodriguez and Darin Erstad, and scrappy youngsters Hunter Pence and Bourn, and this team was bound to get hot any minute.

Past Baseball Tonight Clubhouses: July 21 | July 20 | July 19 | July 16 | July 15

HALL OF FAME BY THE NUMBERS: NO. 19

Editor's Note: This week, leading up to the Hall of Fame induction ceremony Sunday in Cooperstown, N.Y., Baseball Tonight is highlighting the five greatest uniform numbers in baseball history, based on the players (both Hall of Famers and future Hall of Famers) who have worn them, and debating which player was the best ever to don that number.

Two of the best No. 19s in baseball history were already great major leaguers by age 19. By the end of their careers, all our 19s were great, creating a great debate for the best 19.

Bob Feller leads the way. He pitched in the big leagues as a 17-year-old and is the only pitcher to have 18 strikeouts in a game when he was 18 years old. Feller won 266 games. He won 20 six times, led his league in strikeouts seven times and threw three no-hitters, including one on Opening Day in 1940. Had he not lost four prime years when he enlisted in the Navy at 23 to fight in the Pacific, Feller might have won another 100 games.

Robin Yount made his major league debut as an 18-year-old shortstop and, by age 25, he had 1,000 hits. He finished with 3,142 hits, is the only player in history to win an MVP award as an infielder and as an outfielder and is the last Brewer to win a Gold Glove -- and that was 27 years ago.

The Greatest No. 19
Who was the greatest player to wear No. 19 in baseball history?

• Bob Feller
• Tony Gwynn
• Fred McGriff
• Billy Pierce
• Robin Yount

Register your vote
Tony Gwynn's .338 average is the 17th-highest of all time; he and Ted Williams are the only players with averages that high to play after 1938. Gwynn won eight batting titles -- only Ty Cobb had more -- he stole 319 bases and won five Gold Gloves. For a five-year period, Gwynn hit .337 with two strikes; no player in that time hit that high using all his strikes.

Fred McGriff hit 493 home runs and, over a 15-year period, averaged 31 homers, 97 RBIs and a .288 batting average -- only 10 other players in history have done that, and they're either in the Hall of Fame or will be someday. Some say Billy Pierce should be in the Hall with 211 wins and a 3.27 ERA, but he is pushed for the last No. 19 by Dave Righetti and someday Josh Beckett.

Hey, 19, you're good.


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BBTN ON THE AIR: THURSDAY

TIME WHO'S ON?
10 p.m. ET
ESPN
Host: Steve Berthiaume
Analysts: Orestes Destrade, Fernando Vina, Buster Olney
12 a.m. ET
ESPN
Host: Steve Berthiaume
Analysts: Orestes Destrade, Fernando Vina, Buster Olney

BBTN MINUTE: ASTROS ROLLING ALONG

WEDNESDAY'S BEST AND WORST

BEST
Willingham• A rare appearance for a Nationals player. But Josh Willingham went 4-for-4 with a homer and drove home two of Washington's runs in its 3-1 win against the Mets. Willingham had been hitless in his previous five games, an 0-for-14 skid.
WORST
Perkins• Twins pitchers have to be thrilled to be getting out of Oakland. Two days after giving up 13 runs, Minnesota was whacked for 16 by the A's in Oakland's 16-1 win. Starter Glen Perkins lasted only one inning, giving up six hits, eight runs and three walks. He was followed by Kevin Mulvey, who also lasted one inning, giving up six hits and four runs.

WEB GEMS

NUMBERS TO KNOW

Tim Lincecum Arizona's Dan Haren will take the mound Thursday against Pittsburgh. With an ERA of 1.96 and a 10-5 record, Haren is certainly part of the National League Cy Young conversation. He's been brilliant in July, going 3-0 and holding opponents to just two earned runs in 23 innings.

If Haren has had a weakness this season, it has been his curveball. He is allowing a batting average of .309 against his hook, far higher than any other pitch. Haren has had trouble locating his curveball and has left far too many in the zone. More than 63 percent of Haren's curves end in the strike zone, far higher than the major league average of 44.6 percent, and hitters have taken advantage.

Dan Haren (2009)
Curveball All other pitches
BA against .309 .172
In-zone pct. 63.2 50.8
Pct. of pitches away 41.7 55.5

Haren will have to be especially careful against Freddy Sanchez, who is hitting .391 against curveballs this season, tied for third-best in the majors.

-- ESPN Stats & Information

ON DECK: THURSDAY'S BEST MATCHUPS

Rays at White Sox, 2:05 p.m. ET

Mark Buehrle has won four of his past five decisions. Scott Kazmir has been the exact opposite, losing four of his past five decisions. In fact, Kazmir has not won since May 9. He also has not gone seven innings in a start this year.

Padres at Phillies, 7:05 p.m. ET

Cole Hamels has gotten predictable lately -- one good start followed by one bad one. He was bad (nine hits, seven runs) July 1 against the Braves, then good (three hits, one run) July 6 against the Reds. He struggled (seven hits, five runs) his next time out, against Pittsburgh, then followed with a solid effort against the Marlins (four hits, one run) in his most recent start.

Twins at Angels, 10:05 p.m. ET

Jered Weaver is coming off an outing in which he felt seriously ill after the first inning of a game against Oakland, which knocked out eight hits and five runs over the 3 2/3 innings Weaver remained in the game. It was his shortest outing of the year. The Twins are just hoping for a solid start after giving up double-digit run totals twice in their past three games. Scott Baker will be in charge of getting things back on track.

For the rest of Thursday's schedule, click here.

FANTASY: PREVIEW OF THURSDAY'S GAMES

Fantasy AJ Mass examines the nine games on Thursday's slate.

Mass ranks the pitchers scheduled to take the mound and supplies loads of other information that could help shape your roster for Thursday. Daily Notes