Inside Baseball: Astros' surge tightens NL wild-card race - East Valley Tribune: Sports

Inside Baseball: Astros' surge tightens NL wild-card race

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Posted: Saturday, September 13, 2008 9:18 pm | Updated: 10:59 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. No, not having to read "A Tale of Two Cities" in English class. Tracking Houston and Milwaukee as they play down the stretch.

Read Jack Magruder's blog, 'Inside Baseball'

Milwaukee had a seemingly comfortable 5 1/2- game lead in the NL wild-card race Sept. 2, but a 3-7 homestand - accompanied by another second-half Houston surge - tightened the race appreciably.

The Brewers hit .217 and scored only 28 runs in those 10 games, when 3-4-5 hitters Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder and Corey Hart combined for no home runs and five RBIs, then lost the first game of a critical series in Philadelphia.

They enter a doubleheader today at Philadelphia only two games ahead of the Phillies and 21/2 ahead of Houston.

Still, "we have a great opportunity," Craig Counsell said. "All we have to do is depend on ourselves. That's a great feeling."

Milwaukee manager Ned Yost calls this time of year "horribly fun," because of the stakes, and the Brewers hope to avoid a horrible carry-over from 2007, when they led the NL Central most of the year before fading.

Houston, forced to postpone the first two games of a critical series with the Cubs this weekend because of Hurricane Ike, has a different memory to draw from.

The Astros surged to the postseason in 2004 and 2005, clinching on the final day of the regular season after being written off each time, and are showing a similar resilience.

"This isn't exactly new territory for us,'' Astros first baseman and MVP candidate Lance Berkman said.

Houston is 46-27 since June 19. Former D-Backs closer Jose Valverde leads the NL with 42 saves and is two short of Billy Wagner's franchise record.

In the first 25 games since clean-up hitter and league RBI leader Carlos Lee went down with an injury, Ty Wigginton hit .340 with 11 home runs and 25 RBIs. Wigginton got hurt, and the Astros kept rolling.

And so it goes.

"You can see it in everybody's eyes right now," shortstop Miguel Tejada said.

O, AS IN OSWALT

Pitcher Roy Oswalt has helped trigger Houston's resurgence while extending his scoreless streak to a franchise-record 32 1/3 innings with his second consecutive shutout, a 6-0 victory over Pittsburgh on Thursday. Oswalt gave up four hits in those two games while overtaking J.R. Richard (31 straight scoreless innings).

Oswalt is the first pitcher in the majors with consecutive shutouts since the Diamondbacks' Brandon Webb had three in a row Aug. 5-17, 2007, during his streak of 42 straight scoreless innings.

Randy Johnson was the last Astro to have consecutive shutouts, on Aug. 7 and 12, 1998, when he was acquired for the stretch run before signing with the D-Backs as a free agent that winter.

WHITE SOX'S PITCHING PLANS

In order to use top starters Javier Vazquez, Mark Buehrle and Gavin Floyd on regular rest in a series against Minnesota on Sept.23-25 that could decide the AL Central, the White Sox will start Buehrle, Floyd and John Danks on three days' rest against Kansas City next weekend.

It is a creative approach, since most teams tend toward giving starters extra rest, if possible, after a long season.

"I'm ready for whatever," Vazquez said.

The new order also gives the White Sox the option of skipping the fifth starter the final week and starting Vazquez and Buehrle in the final two games of the season.

RYAN'S HOPE

When Texas drew fewer than 2 million fans in 1988, the Rangers signed free-agent right-hander Nolan Ryan, and his popularity triggered an attendance boom and a push for a new ballpark.

The Rangers are in danger of drawing fewer than 2 million this season for the first time since 1988, which could move the new team president - Nolan Ryan - to hit the market again.

WALKOFF BALK

Colorado's playoff chances took a hit Tuesday in an unusual way, when reliever Taylor Buchholz balked in the winning run in Atlanta's 5-4, 10-inning victory, stopping in the midst of his windup with runners on second and third.

"Stupidest thing I've ever done, pretty much," said Buchholz, who said he juggled the ball in his hand after getting the sign "and just kind of froze out there."

Washington's Mike Stanton had the last walkoff balk in the majors on July 15, 2005.

TELL YOUR STATISTICS TO SHUT UP

Minnesota suffered four walkoff losses in its 14-game road trip, made to accommodate the Republican National Convention, and have lost five games in which they led by three or more runs in the seventh inning or later. They only lost five such games in the previous five years, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

MOYER KNUCKLES DOWN

Pitching on three days' rest Thursday, Philadelphia left-hander Jamie Moyer recorded his 14th victory this season, the most wins for any nonknuckleball-throwing 45-year-old in major league history. Phil Niekro won 16 games at ages 45 and 46.

CC IS NO. 1-1

CC Sabathia is tied for the lead in shutouts in both the AL (two) and NL (three) after his trade from Cleveland to Milwaukee in mid-July. ESPN's Jayson Stark reports that no pitcher has ever led both leagues in the same statistical category in the same season.

SAY WHAT?

"You can talk about having fun, talk about relaxing. You've got to get your shirt (sleeves) rolled up and go out and kick somebody's (butt). Period. Period!"

Cubs manager Lou Piniella on playing down the stretch.

LOOKING AHEAD

Tampa Bay continues its man-or-mouse stretch run by hosting Boston for three games and Minnesota for four.

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