Juiced: Don't Cry for Me, Roger Clemens

The Houston Astros are said to be petitioning the office of Commissioner Bud Selig to amend their schedule so that at least half their remaining 2007 games are against the Cincinnati Reds. Or they should. Although they lost this afternoon's getaway game to the Redlegs 9-5, Chris "Remember Me?" Burke did hit a three-run homer, and their record against Cincinnati this year is a more-than-respectable 7-2, meaning against the rest of the league they're, err, 9-16. Might want to hold off on printing up those playoff tickets, especially since Selig's Milwaukee Brewers are about another good two weeks from running away with the National League Central like the dish with the proverbial spoon. There's always the wild card, right?

Well, maybe. Now is about the time hardcore Astros fans start chanting one of their favorite mantras, "They're a second-half team," and lest we forget, the middle of May was when they were at the depths of 15 games under .500 in that magical World Series season of 2005. So while we wait for them to catch fire, which should only be another month or two, here's a few things to chew on that suggest giving up might be a little premature. Since Houston has been in playoff contention on the last day of the season every year since 2003, it usually is.

The Astros' recent 10-1 and 13-0 wins over Milwaukee and St. Louis confirm that their offense is capable of scoring runs even if, as the surrounding games proved, they don't always do it (if they leave the bases loaded one more time …). This year those runs are either coming in the first inning or the end of the game - Fox flashed some crazy stat the other night that said 20 of their 33 runs against the Reds came in the seventh inning or later. Lance Berkman is coming around (dude loves to hit in Cincinnati), NL RBI leader Carlos Lee hit one the other day that came down around Louisville, and the Luke Scott-Jason Lane right-field platoon came up with clutch catches and RBIs in the Queen City.

Pitchingwise, the Astros led the league in "quality starts" – one of those pseudo-statistics fans cling to when real ones like wins and losses are disappointing – until a couple of days ago and may still. Truthfully, up to this point the starting rotation has been the least of their worries. Like today, Matt Albers tends to get knocked around, but he looked sharp in Saturday's romp over St. Louis, his first big-league win. Likewise, Chris Sampson (he of the 0.90 ERA) has been everything the Astros could have hoped for in a No. 5, and even Wandy Rodriguez deserves better than his 0-3 mark. Roy O is Roy O - i.e., if not the current frontrunner for the NL Cy Young Award at least in the (very brief) conversation - and if Jason Jennings ever gets off the disabled list with his elbow intact, they should be OK. That's even, contrary to the prevailing media sentiment, without the services of one Roger Clemens. Even more than last year, the Rocket's annual comeback carries a whiff of desperation. The New York Yankees should be very concerned about how much he has left in the tank, but their rotation is even more patchwork than the Astros'. Houston's bullpen has been nails lately, too - Brad "Load 'Em Up" Lidge's ERA is down to 4.02 from the double digits, if that tells you anything.

Down on the farm, there hasn't been much to write home about from the Dell Diamond. Fernando Nieve, the Round Rock Express' default No. 1 starter, is out for the year due to Tommy John surgery, and his teammates are currently languishing in the cellar of the PCL's American South division at 15-19. (To be fair, they're only 3.5 games behind division leader Albuquerque.) Considering the Astros' dicey rotation, Juan Gutierrez (1-3, 2.66 ERA) is probably one disabled-list assignment from being called up to Minute Maid. The Express try to get on the right side of .500 this weekend with a home-stand against the Portland Beavers, which, if nothing else, should be good for a few cheap laughs.

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