This is way the Astros season ends: Not with a bang, but a whimper

I've done pretty much anything but think about the Astros today.  There were too many mixed emotions to sort through; too many other tantalizing distractions to latch onto.  I've watched a dismal Fantasy Football day crush my spirits, the Texans look weak in the second half against the Oakland Raiders, talked HLP down from the ledge as he fretted about his ability to clinch our rotisserie keeper-league (he did, Congrats buddy, you earned it).  

I didn't even watch the Astros game.  I couldn't.  

I saw the standard tweets about it on my desktop client (Tweetie) and that was enough depression for me.  The most critical thinking I could bring myself to do about the Astros was a few expletive deleted texts and about five minutes worth of phone conversation between HLP and myself.  I don't know why it is that I feel this way, or I have felt this way for the last few weeks, but I think the catharsis of knowing that it's over has finally allowed me to snap out of my funk.

I can still remember when the glimmer of hope I had for this season was born.  BtB's Sky Kalkman emailed me the spreadsheet for his Community Projection Project and I rushed to input all the projections.  Without any fan embellishment, we were something like an 80 win team.  It was late December and I was shocked.  Flabbergasted. Almost afraid to actually publish the result publically.  I probably wrote about seven drafts of an email I never sent Sky explaining—politely—that I thought his spreadsheet was broken.

We spent the next few weeks tweaking and refining the inputs and suddenly we were an 82 win team.  Then in late March Ivan Rodriguez and Jeff Keppinger landed in Houston and we quickly became an 83 win team.  There was probably inflation, but a .500 season seemed realistic, and there were all the variables in place to allow for some kind of meaningful and exciting season to get underway.

April and May saw the NL Central become a smorgasbord of stories that had thrown the conventional off-season predications of how the Central would play out, out. Yet the Astros struggled for most of it and seemed destined to be mired in irrelevancy, even as opportunity knocked.  I managed to avoid excess worry and pessimism during this stretch by being wrapped up in graduating from college and then not living like a member of the real world for the next month (that month will easily go down as the most enjoyable month of my life).  Perhaps that's what insulated my glimmer of hope and kept me set up for the inexorable Astros-depression that has plagued me as of late (does semi-ignorance count as denial?)

June arrived and the Astros were quietly good.  The responsibility of covering the team on a daily basis allowed for me to be slow to notice the fact that the Astros were stringing together victories and closing ground in the Central. So it was a very plesant surprise when I finally allowed myself to consider the possibility of the Astros becoming...contenders(?!).  

By the time the All-Star break was upon us, I don't think that there were many of us who weren't starting to harbor something akin to excitement.  When we opened the second half by splitting the series with the Dodgers, I'd say most of us were starting to place ourselves in the camp of believers.  I know I was.  

Sure, there was a mountain of statistical evidence based on macro-level measures that could demonstrate how the Astros couldn't possibly succeed, but we saw a different picture.  We saw a team that had been felled by Jose Valverde's monstrously wicked calf strain, Roy Oswalt's post-WBC inconsistency, and Lance Berkman's weird odd-year-early-season-under-perfomance.  We were buoyed along by the fact that Wandy, in spite of his two weeks of HR/FB regression, was pitching consistently and finally living up to all of our hopes.  There was Bud Norris tilling the farm in the PCL with a low 2.00 ERA and thus the hope that our rotation could only get better—not worse.

This all led to what I'll consider to be the peak of the Astros 2009 Season: July 20th-22nd.  The NL Central leading Cardinals were going to be at MMP and the Astros had quite the opportunity on their hands.  Prior to the Astros three game sweep of the Cards, I wrote the following:

Unlike previous years when the Astros and their fans had to hope and pray throughout the month of September that other teams would drop the ball while the Astros took care of other opponents, the Astros will be firmly in the drivers seat this time around from July 20th on...

...I consider this series to be the keynote address to how the Astros will handle the opportunity they're presented.  They're only real opponent is themselves. This is a division, and even an Wild Card race, that has proven to be anything but decided ninety plus games into the season.  So the Astros, flawed as they are, have legs to stand on in the search for October baseball, but we've all yet to figure out is how sturdy those legs are.

As we all know, the legs weren't that sturdy.  Our offense collapsed into a black hole of paltry OBP (.305) and our farm hands and scrap heap veterans were anything but consistent as the season pressed forward on the mound for us. Even Roy Oswalt couldn't hold up.

But I don't want to get to that part yet.

There was a week long period after that where it genuinely felt like the Astros were going to do it.  They were going to shock all of us and make a legitimate run at the playoffs.  Actually take their fate in their own hands and dispatch their NL Central rivals.  Maybe it was a fan's bias, but I did.  Hell, I even put my neck on the chopping block and tried to show up SBN's own RJ Anderson when he wrote about how screwed the Astros actually were.  I still don't think his argument was overwhelming, completely thought out, or entirely objective, but, in the end, he was right and I was wrong if you obscure the issue somewhat.  

I think this is known as the first stage of grief: denial.  What I was really saying and hoping was: "The Astros are fine, there's a way these obvious defects can be overcome.  I can't say exactly how, I just believe they can."

Did I partake in too much of the Kool-Aid? Probably.  But I really don't see how I couldn't.  It felt like the stars were aligning.  It felt like my sports luck was going to turn around.  It felt like the baseball gods were going to pay us back for Hurricane Ike, the Selig/McLane/Cubs/Milwaukee fiasco, Joe Creede's ridiculously dumb defensive luck circa October 2005—everything.

It happened, though.  Not a bang, but a whimper.  The Astros dropped a series to the Mets at home.  Then dropped series against Chicago on the road were swept by a Matt Holliday powered Cardinals.  At the time it felt disconcerting, but certainly nothing to lose the faith over.  After all it, was still just early August.  It was impossible for me to fathom that it would be the start of a 25-42 run for the Astros.  Reading that number right now it still seems impossible.

The team just started to slip way in bits and pieces.  Chris Sampson went down, exposing the limits of the set-up men.  Alberto Arais faltered and would go down with injury and later go under the knife.  Bud Norris, whose was dazzling in his debut in St. Louis, started to get shelled.  Yorman Bazardo got a call up to fill in for the now comical merry-go-round of Feliepe Paulino, Mike Hampton, Brian Moehler, and the released Ortiz, but struggled as well.  Every game I oscillated between the anger and bargaining phases of grief.  It was either: "What the hell is (object of my ire) doing/thinking, this is absurd.  I can't believe they're finding new and impressive ways to blow this" or "Please baseball gods, please, just let them pull it together.  It's not to late for them salvage something."

By the time September was underway, I was in full blown depression, the fourth stage.  I didn't want to write about this team, I didn't want to think about this team, I didn't want to watch this team.  Every loss was too painful; every glimmer of hope from Norris or Paulino tainted by my own jadedness.  As I mulled over our options for 2010, the prospect of trying to make this team a contender on the budget Drayton McLane will provide did nothing to pull me out of my funk.

In the depression stage of grief, apparently one disconnects oneself by being silent.  By not allowing their thoughts to be challenged or corrected by someone who could bring hope.  Even though I wasn't writing, I was still reading.  Most of you have continued to find the silver lining.  Me, I couldn't stop adhering to Jerry Garcia's adage that every silver lining has a touch of gray.

Sure, Bud Norris has flashed brillance, but I've been stuck on knowing that he'll turn up injured before May rolls around next year.  Paulino? He'll probably be on the Wandy Rodriguez path to greatness and take until 2013 to finally arrive.  Wesley Wright's conversion to starter? Could Ed Wade be any more desperate for his owner to throw him a lifeline in the form a $10 million to go grab a worth while pitcher? 

I could go on, but I think you get the point.  That's pretty much how I've been thinking and feeling about the Astros for the last month.  It's been awful.

Sometime around 8:30PM though, I finally reached the final stage, acceptance.  Was this season a disappointment? Yes. Even so, it still provided a six to eight week stretch where people believed.  Where people cared.  Even though there's no one thing I can find to blame the Astros soul-crushing, for me, atrophy into the team that limped their way to a 25-42 final stretch, it's ok.  I'm not sure there is.  This once meteorically hot team just whimpered its way through the majority of the second half to a dismal 5th place finish in the NL Central.  From one game behind on July 22nd, to seventeen games back on October 4th.  It's probably fitting that they were shut out.

There's always next year.

It's still too soon for me to cling to that adage with the kind of hope I did last December, but at least that's what we have to focus on now.

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