Brad Mills’ first year at the controls proved challenging. After a calm and rather uneventful spring, the regular season quickly turned into a disaster. Houston was swept in their opening homestand and came out of April with an 8-14 record. May offered more disappointment with a 9-20 mark.
The offense sputtered like nothing seen in Houston since the expansion days. Lance Berkman was injured for the first month and sluggers Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence got off to terrible starts. Newcomer Pedro Feliz, signed to stabilize the third base position, did little to help the offense and Kaz Matsui, in the final year of a three-year deal, had to look up to find the Mendoza Line. Rookie shortstop Tommy Manzella and catcher J.R. Towles also got off to rugged starts.
So Mills, and General Manager Ed Wade, were forced to make changes. Matsui was released. Towles was demoted. Chris Johnson came back from the minors and saw regular time at third while Jeff Keppinger filled in for Matsui and veteran Kevin Cash replaced Towles behind the plate. Geoff Blum was used to spell several infield spots.
After the 17-34 start, some stabilizing took place. The Astros were still crushed in interleague play by playoff-bound Texas, New York and Tampa Bay but they managed to craft a 14-14 record for the month of June.
Veteran stars Berkman and Roy Oswalt talked openly of being traded if it would help the club. Lee, the other big contract on the books, had no such thoughts, at least not openly.
The starting pitchers had their problems too. Wandy Rodriguez got off to a 3-10 record with a 6.09 ERA. Felipe Paulino began 0-7 before he won his first game. Bud Norris began the year 4-6 with a 6.08 ERA and even Oswalt was 5-10 despite a 3.22 ERA over the first three months.
The lone bright spot in the rotation was Brett Myers, the former first-rounder of the Phillies who had fallen out of favor and was signed late in January for a $3 million dollar salary with an option for 2011. Myers was the epitome of steady. Win or lose, he’d give the Astros six or seven innings, giving up four runs or less in all but one start until tiring late in September. He set a franchise record with 32 consecutive starts of six innings or more.
The youth movement began in earnest when the Astros called up 23-year-old catcher Jason Castro from the minors. The first-round choice from 2008 arrived on June 22, got a hit in his big league debut and homered two days later as his family watched from the stands.
On July 1st, Cash was dealt to Boston for 26-year-old shortstop Angel Sanchez, who took over for an injured Manzella and showed a knack for doing the little things that help win games. Along with Johnson, you could feel a new enthusiasm that was reflected in a winning record for July.
As the trade deadline approached, rumors were heavy about Oswalt and Berkman. Both had no-trade clauses, so part of crafting a deal was finding a team those two Southerners were willing to play for. Oddly, the winners of that sweepstakes were Philadelphia and New York.
After fielding offers from the Rangers, Dodgers and Cardinals, Wade dealt Oswalt to the Phillies for lefthander J.A. Happ and two minor leaguers. Wade then flipped one of the minor leaguers to Toronto for first baseman Brett Wallace, a player the Cardinals had once selected three picks behind Castro in the 2008 draft.
Then Berkman rejected offers from the West Coast and accepted a trade to the New York Yankees in a bald-faced attempt to get back to the World Series. Berkman made clear he intended to stay a Yankee only until the end of the season. For this, the Yankees gave up reliever Mark Melancon and a minor league infielder. To deal Oswalt and Berkman away, Wade sent several million dollars of cash to the teams to help defray costs against their contracts.
With arguably the two top stars of the franchise gone, fans had every reason to expect the Astros to nosedive, perhaps becoming the first 100-loss team in franchise history. Instead, the club got better.
The main reason was that the remaining starting pitchers found a groove. Myers, Rodriguez and Happ cranked out quality start after quality start. Norris often joined them and the fifth spot in the rotation became property of veteran journeyman Nelson Figueroa, acquired on waivers from (guess who?) Philadelphia on July 21st. With Paulino and Brian Moehler injured and Wesley Wright ineffective, Figueroa took over and made himself at home.
The bullpen was overhauled from the year before when Jose Valverde and LaTroy Hawkins held down the closing roles. Winter moves had acquired Brandon Lyon from Detroit and Matt Lindstrom from Florida. The pair combined for 43 saves while rookie Wilton Lopez solidified the set-up role after holdovers Chris Sampson and Jeff Fulchino struggled.
Mills milked enough offense out of the rookies and remaining veterans to win a lot of tight ballgames in August and September. By September 20th, the Astros had crept into third place, within four games of the .500 mark at 73-77, and 11-1/2 games back of the first-place Reds. But they lost nine of their final dozen contests, finishing in fourth with a 76-86 record - one game better than the Cubs and one game worse than Milwaukee.
Outfielder Michael Bourn (.265 average, 2 homers, 38 RBIs) was the lone Astro to appear at the All-Star Game and led the National League again in steals with 52. Right fielder Pence (.282, 25, 92) recovered from a slow start to lead the club in homers and RBIs with left fielder Lee (.246, 24, 89) a close second.
Johnson (.308, 11, 52) surprised most with his hitting prowess after taking over the third base job. Sanchez (.280, 0, 25) and Keppinger (.288, 6, 59) became regulars at short and second respectively while Wallace (.222, 2 ,13) split time with Lee at first after Berkman (.245, 13, 49) left. Castro (.205, 2, 8) split time with veteran Humberto Quintero (.234, 4, 20) behind the plate.
Myers (14 wins, 8 losses, 3.14 ERA) took over as the ace of the pitching staff and was rewarded in August with a contract extension through 2013. Rodriguez (11-12, 3.60), Norris (9-10, 4.92), Happ (5-4, 3.75) and Figueroa (5-3, 3.22) provided a nucleus to be excited about for the future.
Lyon (6-6, 3.12, 20 saves) and Lindstrom (2-5, 4.39, 23 saves) kept the back of the bullpen solid most of the season. Lopez (5-2, 2.96, 1) worked middle relief with Melancon (2-0, 3.12) and Fulchino (2-1, 5.52) to go with lefties Tim Byrdak (2-2, 3.49), Gustavo Chacin (2-2, 4.70, 1), Fernando Abad (0-1, 2.84) and others.
Two contests stood out as Houston's top games of the year. On August 3rd, Sanchez drove in six during an 18-4 massacre at St. Louis. On August 24th, the Astros fought the league champion Phillies to a 2-2 tie that lasted 16 innings before Houston pulled it out, 4-2. Benches became so depleted that Oswalt was stationed in left field for his new teammates and became the final out in the marathon contest.
Over the course of the season, the Astros transitioned from a veteran group that played with little conviction and little success to a young vibrant group of talent whose best years appear to be ahead of them. In the process, Wade slashed payroll to give him room to make moves in the future where youth might not succeed.By Astro Daily
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- Angel Sanchez, Brad Mills, Brandon Lyon, Brett Myers, Brian Moehler, Carlos Lee, Chris Johnson, Chris Sampson, Geoff Blum, Houston Astros, Hunter Pence, J.A. Happ, J.R. Towles, Jeff Fulchino, Jose Valverde, Kazuo Matsui, Kevin Cash, LaTroy Hawkins, Lance Berkman, Mark Melancon, Matt Lindstrom, Michael Barrett, Michael Bourn, Nelson Figueroa, Pedro Feliz, Roy Oswalt, Tommy Manzella, Wandy Rodriguez