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Astros make pitch for playoffs

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times,
published September 9, 2001


The Mariners might be one of the best teams ever. The Yankees have the league's highest payroll and the talent to show for it. The Diamondbacks boast Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, but a wilting offense.

And then there are the Astros.

Steadily becoming a dark horse pick to thrive in the playoffs, Houston has taken the NL Central lead with a steady offense and phenomenal second-half pitching.

"That's been the key element in our turnaround," Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker said of the latter. "All you have to do is look at our championship years and look at the parallels. When you have superior pitching, you a have a great chance to win. When you add the type of pitching that we've been getting with the offense that we have, that's a pretty good combination."

Trailing the Cubs by one game in the Central on Aug. 15, the Astros have gone 16-5 since and lead Chicago by 5 1/2 games. The pitching staff has allowed three runs or fewer in 16 of those 22 games and has the fourth-lowest ERA since the All-Star break, impressive considering injuries to Pedro Astacio, Shane Reynolds and Carlos Hernandez.

The constants have been a pair of 24-year-olds -- Wade Miller (16-7, 3.54) and rookie Roy Oswalt (13-2, 2.68) -- along with the bullpen duo of Billy Wagner (34 saves) and hard-throwing setup man Octavio Dotel.

Oswalt leads NL rookies in wins, ERA, strikeouts (128), complete games (2) and opponents' batting average (.224). On Tuesday, he became the winningest rookie pitcher in the 40-year history of the organization.

"It doesn't go against the laws of baseball to have a young guy come up and pitch like that," catcher Brad Ausmus said. "But to have three or four of those guys, it defies everything."

A DIFFERENT ROOKIE: Cardinals manager Tony La Russa is confident Bud Smith will not turn out like Jose Jimenez, who pitched a no-hitter in 1999.

Smith became the first rookie since Jimenez to pitch a no-hitter, against the Padres on Monday. Jimenez, now with the Rockies, won one game after his no-hitter and was sent to the minors before the end of the season.

"The big difference is that Bud's got a lot of discipline in his daily routine, and we'll just leave it at that," La Russa said. LONGEVITY PAYS: If you had to guess which four players had 35 homers and 100 RBI in seven straight seasons, who would they be?

Sammy Sosa. Jimmie Foxx. Babe Ruth.

But Rafael Palmeiro? The Rangers' 36-year-old first baseman joined that threesome last week.

"I think this means I've been consistently productive," Palmeiro said. "I expect this, and as long as I stay healthy, I see no reason why I shouldn't do it again."

Troublesome knees will limit his time in the field and increase his role as designated hitter.

"With his swing, you know he's going to hit longer than most guys," Rangers general manager Doug Melvin said. A WELCOME ARM: Oakland reliever Jim Mecir was activated from the disabled list on Wednesday, 25 days after he had surgery on his right knee.

"Thank goodness for modern medicine," A's manager Art Howe said.

Traded from Tampa Bay to Oakland late last season -- he went 3-1 with a 2.80 ERA in the final weeks -- Mecir pitched the ninth inning against the Orioles on Wednesday and allowed a two-run homer to Luis Matos.

"I felt good. I felt confident," said Mecir, who also pitched a scoreless ninth against the Rays on Friday. "I'm healthy, and my arm strength was there. It's not going to take that long. When I'm ready, I'm sure I'll go back to doing what I was doing."

BONDS WATCH: The comparisons of Barry Bonds to Mark McGwire will be plentiful in the next few weeks.

The Giants outfielder hit his 60th homer in his 141st game; McGwire reached that mark in 142 games during his 70-homer season in 1998. Bonds also took fewer at-bats to reach the milestone (414 through Thursday's game to 442 for McGwire).

Bonds hit 10 homers in 26 games last September.

ODDS AND ENDS: The Pirates will finish under .500 for the ninth straight season, tying a franchise record from 1949 through 1957. ... On Wednesday, Angels infielder David Eckstein was hit by a pitch for the 17th time this season. That tied a rookie record set by Heinie Manush of the 1923 Tigers. ... Marlins centerfielder Preston Wilson was 8-for-43 and had no homers with runners in scoring position and two outs before he hit a three-run homer with two outs on Wednesday to win a game. ... Former Rays pitcher John Burkett is 11-10 with the Braves this season after a loss on Wednesday. That's the most victories he has had since going 14-14 with the Marlins in 1995.

THE LAST WORD: Through Saturday, the Tigers were 16 losses from 100 this season.

"Any type of person, any type of human being, cannot be having fun the way we're playing right now. No way," outfielder Bobby Higginson said on Sept. 2 before noticing the Tigers had Monday off. "At least we won't lose tomorrow."

-- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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