The biggest difference between the past 20 games or so against NL Central opponents and the past two series against the Mets and the Marlins has been pitching. Both those NL East teams have thrown out some great pitching performances, both from guys like Johan Santana who should do it and guys like R.A. Dickey and Chris Volstad who surprise.
The Astros responded with some pretty good pitching performances of their own. Unfortunately, their offense couldn't figure out a lot of those opposing starters, leading to a ton of low-scoring games, including that 14-inning marathon last week.
Heading into this season, we knew that pitching and defense would be points of emphasis for this team. That's why Wade got Pedro Feliz and Brett Myers in the offseason. Now, what we couldn't have predicted is how good the rotation would remain after Roy Oswalt was traded away and Felipe Paulino was injured. With little to no help in the minors, Wade has had to piece together a rotation, claiming Nelson Figueroa off waiver as his latest coup de gras. Figueroa replaces an ineffective Wesley Wright, giving the Astros five decent starters capable of going six innings while allowing 2 or fewer runs a game.
That's a rotation for a playoff-bound team, easily. I'd feel just as good about a top four of Myers, Happ, Wandy and Norris as I did about the Oswalt, Clemens, Backe rotation from 2004.
All this is really just to point out how disappointing this weekend's series was. Yes, Sunday was a nice win with Hunter Pence providing a long home run in the top of the eighth to win it. Yes, it was nice to see FIgueroa go six innings while striking out seven and allowing just one run. By and large, though, the Astros should have won a few more games. Friday, they were done in by a rain delay. Saturday, it was their defense that let them down. All the while, they had hitter after hitter fail to deliver like they have been.
How else can you justify losing a game when Wandy strikes out 10? The offense may have been due for some regression, what with Pence and Chris Johnson being white hot for the past few weeks. That's when a team needs other run producers to step up. Guys like Carlos Lee and Brett Wallace have failed to provide backup for the lineup.
These games have also highlighted how much the Astros miss Jeff Keppinger. He was one of the most consistent hitters on the roster. While not a spectacular hitter, he knew how to work a walk and had decent gap power. He was miscast as a third hitter, but he certainly didn't hurt the Astros by being in the lineup. Angel Sanchez has provided his own brand of consistency, but for as solid as he's seemed to me, the numbers don't back that up. He's still got negative numbers for fielding and batting in FanGraphs' WAR calculations, meaning his fWAR is at just 0.1. I'd agree that his defense hasn't been stellar, but it seems like it should be a little better than slightly below average. Same with his hitting.
Again, it was good to see Pence's homer, Figueroa's solid start and Brandon Lyon locking things down in the ninth for his sixth save. But, overall, I have to think that the Astros need a couple more consistent bats in their lineup to support this surprisingly solid pitching staff. More on this tomorrow...