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Here Come The Astros

The Dodgers welcome the Houston Astros to town for a four-game series starting tonight, to begin the second half of the season, as well as a ten-game homestand, Manny Ramirez's first home game since May 6.  The Astros are all even at 44-44, but since June 1 they have played much better, going 24-15 (although only outscoring their opponents by seven runs during that span, for a .520 pythagorean winning percentage).

The Astros' recent surge has rekindled talk of a potential playoff berth.  As Jerome Solomon of the Houston Chrocnicle noted:

Since 1997, the Astros have been .500 or better at the All-Star break seven times. Guess what. They made the playoffs in six of those seasons.

Solomon also noted it might take 90 wins to win the NL Central.  To date there has been no word of manager Cecil Cooper concocting a life-size, tearaway cardboard Drayton McClane (or Rachel Phelps).

The Astros are led on offense by Lance Berkman, along with All-Stars Hunter Pence and Miguel Tejada, and Carlos Lee.

1B Berkman .271/.403/.526 147 .395 .321
RF Pence .298/.366/.473 123 .362 .290
LF Lee .308/.353/.485 122 .359 .288
SS Tejada .329/.357/.473 120 .359 .287


In addition, Houston has received an unexpected fine season from a speedy outfielder who hasn't really hit much the last few years, in Michael Bourn.  Sound familiar, Dodger fans? Bourn is hitting .286/.360/.407, with a .350 wOBA, and leads the National League with 32 stolen bases.

Roy Oswalt is still doing his thing for the Astros (5-4, 3.90 FIP), but surprisingly their best pitcher this season has been Wandy Rodriguez.  The 30-year old (I know, I was shocked when I saw that, too -- hasn't he been around forever?) is 8-6 with a 3.65 FIP, 142 ERA+, and 106 strikeouts in 112.1 innings.  Oswalt, with ten no-decisions, has been battling Randy Wolf for the major league lead in that category.

Friday's game looks like the featured game of the series, with the Oswalt/Billingsley pitching matchup. 

Their entire bullpen has been effective, putting up a 3.21 ERA since June 1, while striking out 7.83 batters per nine innings over that span.  The back end of the Astro 'pen has been filled with power arms: closer Jose Valverde, LaTroy "Screaming Line Drive" Hawkins, Alberto Arias, and lefty Tim Byrdak.

2009 Astros
Record 44-44, t-3rd NL Central, 3½ GB
Pythag Record   
41-47 (11th in NL)
Runs Scored 4.18/gm (t-12th in NL)
wOBA .321 (7th in NL)
Runs Allowed 4.52/gm (7th in NL)
FIP 4.34 (9th in NL)
Defensive Efficiency .686 (13th in NL)

The Crawfish Boxes is the Astros blog on SB Nation.  Here is some insight from them recently:

The clubs met earlier in the season in Houston, and the Astros took two of the three games, handing the Dodgers their first series loss of the year:

April 21 - Astros 8, Dodgers 5

April 22 - Astros 6, Dodgers 5

April 23 - Dodgers 2, Astros 0

The Astros swept a three-game series at Dodger Stadium last season, and have not lost a season series to the Dodgers since 2004.  I will be covering the Sunday game, my first since the home return of Manny Ramirez.  It will be interesting to see the difference in the clubhouse.

Pitching Probables

Thursday, 7:10pm:  Wandy Rodriquez (8-6, 3.65 FIP) vs. Randy Wolf (4-3, 4.25 FIP)

Friday, 7:10pm:  Roy Oswalt (5-4, 3.90 FIP) vs. Chad Billingsley (9-4, 3.51 FIP)

Saturday, 7:10pmMike Hampton (5-6, 4.26 FIP) vs. Clayton Kershaw (7-5, 3.52 FIP)

Sunday, 1:10pmRuss Ortiz (3-4, 4.43 FIP) vs. Hiroki Kuroda (3-5, 3.60 FIP)