Editor’s note – This article originally appeared on AstrosConnection.com on April 20, 2001.
The Astros started the season with a 4-2 homestand, then followed that up with a 4-4 showing on about as long a road trip as they will have all season. That puts them at 8-6, good for second place in the NL Central. An 8-6 record doesn’t sound very special, but if they were to go 8-6 every 14 games all season, the Astros would end with over 90 wins.
Going .500 on the road is viewed as acceptable for good teams, but this trip was a little disappointing anyway. With a chance to sweep Central-champion St. Louis last Sunday, the Astros came out on the short end of a 6-5 decision when they missed some chances to score after J.D. “Coppertop” Drew’s sixth-inning tie-breaker homer. It was the eventual game-winner for the Redbirds, as two potentially game-tying Astros runners were thrown out at home over the late innings and the decision slipped from Houston’s grasp.
Then the Astros made their way to Pittsburgh for their PNC Park debut. A limping Pirates team looked like world beaters by holding the Stros to only four runs in sweeping the abbreviated two game set. Two Pirates pitchers looked good, Bronson Arroyo in long relief and closer Mike Williams, but the starters – Jimmy Anderson and Omar Olivares – seemed in imminent danger throughout.
Unfortunately, Jeff Bagwell was the only healthy veteran threat in the middle of the Astros lineup, and he was not hitting well despite this not being his first rodeo. The rest of the road crew looked young and outsmarted with runners on. Fielding errors from Truby and Lugo on the left side of the infield did not help matters at all, and Shane Reynolds took a loss in his first start of the season.
The Astros face some problems that developed during the disappointing end to the road trip. It looks as though Doug Brocail is gone for months if not all season with a tear in an elbow ligament. He just had surgery last season to remove loose bodies from his elbow, so perhaps he came back too fast or tried to do too much in the spring.
Meanwhile, Bill Spiers has been diagnosed with a degenerative disc and will miss significant time. This brings Orlando Merced and Charlie Hayes’ readiness sharply into focus; Merced pinch-hitting left-handed and Hayes as the third-base backup. Jose Vizcaino may plug in at third too.
All are pleased to have Shane Reynolds back, but his initial outing and his facial hair were less than stellar, and Kent Bottenfield is not happy at all to be relegated to the bullpen. “This is just not what I do, bottom line,” said the thick man.
Now the Astros begin a nine-game homestand that should serve as the season’s first good barometer amidst this minor disillusionment and dissension. They start with another three against Central rival St. Louis, losers of 5 of 7 but coming off a victory over horribly ugly Randy Johnson behind their ace Darryl Kile. The Tweets will have to go to war without Big Mac, but it won’t be the first time.
Then the Astros face playoff nemesis Atlanta, currently averaging only 3 runs a game, before capping off the stand with a 3-game set against a Florida Marlins team that has gotten decent pitching but has yet to score double-digit runs.
Though they will have to play heady ball to win each of these series, the Astros have an excellent opportunity to get back to a division lead while the Cubs are taking their first nine-game trip.
Scouting the Central: Chicago
The Cubs are off to a cool 10-5 start behind very solid pitching. There is no established pitcher in the division more capable of dominating a game than either Jon Lieber and his wicked offspeed stuff or Kerry Wood with his heat, yet they have been the two weakest links for the Cubs’ rotation thus far. Kevin Tapani, Julian Tavarez, and Jason Bere are a combined 8-0, and the resurrected Jeff Fassero has dropped 8 saves on the opposition.
The rest of the pen was the Cubs’ biggest problem last year, but Kyle Farnsworth and Todd Van Poppel have offered good early returns on what must have seemed like a l-o-n-g-term investment last season. Nasty lefty Felix Heredia – the five-fingered Felix – has yet to allow a run through ten appearances.
The Cubs aren’t scaring anyone with their offense. Scammin’ Sammy Sosa is the only big-name bat. The parts are there for them to manufacture some runs in Eric Young, Ricky Gutierrez, Bill Mueller – along with Rondell White, these are all solid contributors at their positions.
A second consistent longball threat is vital for a team to avoid prolonged scoring droughts. Todd Hundley, the only lefty with power in this lineup, may heat up and be that guy when he plays and White offers a good deal of pop if he can stay healthy, yet their best power hope may be 6’6″ first baseman Julio Zuleta. The 26-year-old has looked good early, and anything that keeps Matt Stairs and Ron Coomer on the pine should help.
Right now everything is rosy in Chicagoland, but the season is a Marathon bar. The Cubs feature too many players who make extended stays on the DL an annual event, and they would have to consider themselves very, very lucky if the early performances of guys like Van Poppel, Farnsworth, Fassero, Tavarez, and Bere continue all season.
The lineup looks pretty feeble when they start both catcher Joe Girardi and centerfielder Damon Buford, and though their bench is more sound than it’s been in some time with veterans like Hundley available, there still is no good outfield backup. This is a likeable team, but there is not quite enough there to compete for first all season in the NL Central.
The NL Central by payroll (millions of dollars):
77 – St. Louis Cardinals
64 – Chicago Cubs
60 – Houston Astros
53 – Pittsburgh Pirates
45 – Cincinnati Reds
43 – Milwaukee Brewers