Today is the day! It occurred to me that today would be a more appropriate day to run this preview than when I posted it last week...
Our full schedule is heavily backloaded- a hot start appears to be a pre requisite to any hopes of seeing October baseball..or at least being relevant in September. Of the first seven series the Astros play, six will be against division opponents. In total, the month of April will see our boys take on each of the other five NL Central teams, including the Cincinnati Reds seven times. We start our look, however, with the team that has won back to back NL Central titles, the Chicago Cubs.
This will be a test right off the bat. Chicago fans travel (too) well, meaning that the tenth anniversary celebration for Minute Maid Park will be full of nasally accents and snowbirds traveling to Houston from all points sandy/beachy. It'll be a battle for noise supremacy, but Astros fans have become more vocal and opinionated over the years so it should be a superb atmosphere.
Opening Day will feature a matchup of two stud starting pitchers- Carlos Zambrano and Roy Oswalt. In his career, Zambrano is 12-7 against Houston, with a 2.70 ERA and 151 strikeouts in 166.2 innings of work. Included in that performance is his infamous no hitter on the "road" against the Astros last season. He has had injury concerns swirling around him this off season, but Big Z always seems to pitch well against Houston.
Roy O is 12-11 with a 3.88 ERA against Chicago with 133 strikeouts in 160.1 innings pitched. He will be making his seventh consecutive Opening Day start for the Astros.
The next longest Opening Day streak for the Astros belongs to Lance Berkman, whose health will be one of those aforementioned questions. Name the stat and Berkman tops the Astros in it: batting runs above average, VORP, OBP, OPS, RBI and 2B, the loss of Berkman will hurt the Astros tremendously. The loss will be an even more acute pain since the departure of Aaron Boone to heart surgery.
Chicago's only weakness in my eyes- baserunning, isn't even a true weakness. Their team features players who all had above average OBP's in 2008:
Astro pitchers will not have a break this first series. Presumably after Roy, Wandy Rodriguez and Mike Hampton will start for Houston, with Rich Harden and Ryan Dempster starting the final two for the Cubs. This has been a nip and tuck series recently, with the Astros winning the season series last season 9-8, although we were outscored 78-60 (pythagorean record be damned!)
No better way to start off the season than to beat the best, Chicago was that last year in the Central. No rest for the weary, as a road visit to St. Louis follows the series against the Cubs. A fast start to the season hasn't been the Astros mode of operation, but it may have to be in 2009.