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How the next week is the most important in the Astros' season

NL Central Standings

St. Louis 50 42 .543 0 Won 2
Houston 46 44 .511 3 Won 3
Milwaukee 46 44 .511 3 Lost 1
Chicago 45 43 .511 3 Won 2
Cincinnati 43 46 .483 5.5 Won 1
Pittsburgh 39 50 .438 9.5 Won 1

(updated 7.18.2009 at 8:44 AM CDT)

The All Star Game has long since finished and real baseball is back in full swing. If parity is what sports fans crave, then this MLB season has been a veritable feast of average, yet entertaining baseball. In the NL, only the Nationals, Padres, Diamondbacks and Pirates can count themselves as being too far out to make a post season push. Teams such as the Braves, Astros, Rockies, Cubs, Reds, Brewers, Marlins and Mets are close enough to make the division and wild card leaders nervous.

With so much on the over the next few series, the Astros have everything in front of them. It's not as if all of our remaining games are with teams that we are not chasing, which happens seemingly all the time in the NFL. Thankfully baseball is not like the NBA, where a team gets precious few chances those teams in the front every chance to fall flat on their faces, just ask the 2007 and 2008 New York Mets.

There are many games yet to be played, but the Astros are in a position where everything more or less boils down to the next four series. If the team falls out of contention before the trade deadline, it's possible that this is the year that Drayton McLane eases up and decides to trade away a few veteran players for a prospect or two. Miguel Tejada, LaTroy Hawkins and Jose Valverde may be wearing another uniform by July 31st if the Astros' can't handle the July heat. 2010 looks to be an interesting season for the club, but I don't want to look ahead before we absolutely have to. Speaking of 2010, Bud Norris is expected to be a big part of that team. The probable loss of multiple veteran starters means that Norris and other young guns should be given a chance to prove themselves on the major league level. Depending on how the team performs in the upcoming weeks, Norris (and possibly Yorman Bazardo) could be used in a number of ways.

If the Astros are in the hunt come August/September, Bud Norris could be inserted as a late innings pitcher, just another arm to bride the gap between the starters and Jose Valverde. Our bullpen has rode hard and put up wet this season, and a live arm like Norris would be a welcome addition to the team.

On the other hand, a poor performance out of the gates could find Bud Norris as a starting pitcher down the stretch, acclimating him to this level and knocking out a Brian Moehler or Russ Ortiz. Concerns exist about Norris' arm health, considering he had elbow difficulties just last season. If given the green light, we may be exposed to the future sooner than we had anticipated.

After this current series in Los Angeles, the Astros travel home to play St. Louis and New York and then fly to Wrigley Field to play Chicago. Before we get ahead of ourselves, the series against LA and STL should tell us where we are. The Astros don't have a history of playing well on the west coast or beneath the Gateway Arch, but that has to change in 2009 for there to be any hope heading into August.

Recent opponents like the Nats, Giants, Pirates and Padres all had holes in their lineups, and the Astros were able to take advantage of those holes to boost their record to .500. Top to bottom though, the Dodgers are the best team in the NL, and possibly all of baseball. Their offense gets on base, has solid contact hitters, and has the Predator (aka Manny Ramirez) as a near impossilbe out when he's on his game. Things don't get any easier on the other side of the ball, as young pitchers Jonathan Broxton, Clayton Kershaw and Chad Billingsley make up a talented staff. Veterans like Randy Wolf and Hiroki Kuroda are steady as she goes, and have played in important games many times before.

The Cards are an all to familiar road block to success for the Astros. Tony LaRussa never seems to have the most talented bunch, but they always win and almost never beat themselves. Aside from Albert Pujols, Ryan Ludwick is warming up, and Troy Glaus is on his way back from injury. Colby Rasmus is a talented rookie, and Yadier Molina is a terror to try to run against. Adam Wainwright pitches like Walter Johnson against the Astros, and Chris Carpenter is back to his old, really, really good ways.

Making progress in the standings these first few weeks won't be easy, but as it usually is with the Astros, it will be fun and it will have you interested. Before we start to think about 2010, the offseason or even August, these next two series will certainly define and alter the organization's future plans. Game on.