Astros Second-Half Preview: Now Comes The Hard Part

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So the second half of the season gets underway for the Astros tonight, and the team has 74 games left to secure a playoff spot. Of course, the Astros are a surprising 44-44, and they're only three-and-a-half games behind the NL Central leading St. Louis Cardinals, and they're only five games behind the wild-card leading San Francisco Giants.

But just how good are the Astros? The team's feasted on a weak schedule the past several weeks, taking three of five from the anemic Washington Nationals, two of three from the moribund Pittsburgh Pirates, and three of four from the flailing San Diego Padres. Of course, during that time, the Astros also lost two of three to the San Francisco Giants while, at one point, being outscored 22-0.

It was a good thing that the Astros feasted on the lesser competition. This is something they've had trouble with in years past, and wins are wins, no matter how they're achieved. But as the Astros demonstrated with the Giants, they appear to have problems with the really good teams, and the bad news for the Astros is that they're through with the bottom-dwellers, for now at least. The next seven games are against the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Cardinals, and at 56-32 the Dodgers have the best record in the majors while the Cards are currently the class of the NL Central.  

After the Dodgers and Cards, the Astros will face the New York Mets for three games, the Chicago Cubs for three, the Cards for three more, then the Giants for three more games. Things don't get easier because then it's the Milwaukee Brewers for three, the Florida Marlins for four, the Brewers again for three, the Marlins again for three, and finally a break as the Astros then get to meet the Arizona Diamondbacks for three.

Unfortunately for the Astros, they're through with the Nationals and Padres, and they have only three remaining games against the Pirates and three remaining with the Reds. So to make the playoffs, the Astros are going to have to start beating quality teams -- despite what you might think, the Marlins are a quality team this year and have a better record than the Astros. (For what it's worth, the last month of the season sees the Astros again playing primarily teams fighting for the playoffs with games against the Phillies, Cubs, Braves, Brewers, Cards, and Mets, with six games against the Pirates and Reds thrown in for relief.)

The Dodgers will be the first big test. The Dodgers have probably the second-best starting rotation in the majors, behind only the Giants. The Dodgers' team ERA of 3.58 is second-best in the majors, behind only the Giants -- and we all saw how the Giants shut down the Astros a couple of weeks ago. But that's not all. Manny Ramirez has recently returned to the Dodgers, and their potent offense has gotten just that much better. The Dodgers have the seventh-highest scoring team in the majors (second in the NL) with 443 runs.  

The Astros will face the Dodgers with a pitching staff that has the 11th-best ERA in the majors at 4.21. And the Astros offense makes the pitching staff look stellar as the Astros are 23rd in the majors (12th in the NL) with only 368 runs scored. And after the four games with the Dodgers, the Astros get to relax a bit because the Cards have only the fourth-best team ERA in the majors at 3.76, and despite a lineup that features only Albert Pujols as a major offensive threat, the Cards have outscored the Astros this season with 403 runs.

If the Astros can survive these seven games, then it's possible that there's hope for the playoffs, but if not, Ed Wade should really start trying to find any takers possible for Miguel Tejada and Jose Valverde. If the Astros get beat up in these next seven games, then it's going to be a long second half that won't see the end of the season get here fast enough.
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