Astros Down the Stretch: To Dream the Impossible Dream?

Here it is the last week in September and, although the chances they'll miss the playoffs for the first time since 2003 are still pretty good, the Astros are playing meaningful games for the fourth year in a row. That sentence is as bizarre to write as it was to consider even two weeks ago. Then came the eight straight wins, including a four-game sweep of the division-leading Cardinals; six of those victories, like Wednesday night's 15-inning 7-6 squeaker over the Pirates, came after the Astros trailed. Three in their final at-bat, something they'd hardly done all year.

Whatever happens to them in the next four days, this past week they've played some of the best baseball of any Astros club this decade. It's just too bad they couldn't have done it a little sooner.

If they squeeze by St. Louis - and it won't be easy, visiting the Braves for three as the Cards mop up with a spent Milwaukee club - it will go down as one of the greatest 11th-hour miracles (not to mention choke jobs) in baseball history.

The Stros run is a bittersweet reminder of how they could (and should) have been playing all season, but maybe it's a tantalizing glimpse of next season, too. At least it should be: They have Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt, who, barring injury, will put up MVP and Cy Young-type numbers until the teens, locked up long-term, and skipper Phil Garner seems to have finally hit upon the right combination of role players to win ball games.

Clean-living Luke Scott, the Round Rock import who leads the National League in batting in the second half, has been a true godsend. Eric Bruntlett is hitting over .500 on the streak. Aubrey Huff has finally started to produce the way Houston wanted when they got him in July, and Mike Lamb seems to have the knack for getting the right hit at the right time. Even ancient Craig Biggio, gradually being weaned in favor of still-improving Chris Burke, is coming around. Orlando Palmeiro has been nails off the bench the last two weeks. Morgan Ensberg and Jason Lane, whose disappearing act is the main reason Houston's offense has been so anemic this year, and why Garner has had to play so much mix-and-match, have even gotten key hits and RBIs.

Ironically, considering this is the Astros we're talking about here, their pitching is the biggest question mark going into 2007. Roy-O is the NL's best No. 1 starter, but after that the rotation is up for grabs. No one would even try to guess what Roger Clemens will do, but counting on him to come back like they did this year would be a mistake. Andy Pettitte, whose contract is up, has been the subject of several retirement rumors, though once again he's been one of the league's best second-half pitchers and is only 33, 10 full years younger than his buddy. Brandon Backe is gone for the year, rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, and none of the prospects who have shuffled on and off the Round Rock Express - Jason Hirsch, Matt Albers, Taylor Buchholz, Chris Sampson - have especially distinguished themselves, though they haven't pitched terribly, either. With help from young (Fernando Nieve) and old (Dave Borkowski, Trever Miller), the bullpen, which gave fans fits in the first half of the season, has solidified into one of the league's best. Brad Lidge, Chad Qualls, and Dan Wheeler, have been very effective as a sort of three-headed, multiple-inning closer. They'll almost certainly have to go out and get at least a solid No. 2 starter but should try to keep the pen as intact as possible. They threw 10 scoreless innings in Wednesday's marathon.

Yes, the most satisfying aspect of the past week and a half has been that intangible feeling that the Stros have stumbled on a little of that 2004 and '05 mojo. So hang in there, true believers. They may be frustrating, but they're never boring.

Update: Phil Garner's club just blanked the Pirates 3-0. Nine in a row. Roy-O went seven strong giving up no runs and four hits. Lidge (that's right) pitched a 1-2-3 ninth for his 32nd save. The runs came in typically exciting Astros fashion: an Adam Everett single and two bases-loaded walks. On to Atlanta. Keep hope alive!

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