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To my mind, the biggest story in the National League so far is the struggle
of the Houston Astros. The three-time NL Central champs are in last place
this season, with the second-worst record in the league (moving up from
worst just last night).

The team ERA is 14th in the league, and even after factoring in that Enron
Field has played as a hitters’ park so far, it’s clear that the team’s
pitching has been significantly worse this year. While the Astros are fifth
in the league in runs scored, they’re just ninth in EqA, an indication of
just how much Enron has boosted their raw totals.

While many people have pointed to Enron and its deleterious affect on the
Astro rotation–most notably Jose Lima–as the biggest factor in the
Astro decline, there’s a less satisfying, but possibly more accurate,
explanation: luck.

The Astros are a whopping 0-12 in one-run games this year, 0-6 just since
May 13. That’s the entirety of the gap between them and .500. And while you’ll
hear people talk about bullpen, clutchness, leadership and home crowds,
the biggest determining factor in one-run games is luck.

The Astros have just been unlucky so far. How unlucky? Keith Woolner reports
that their 12-game losing streak in one-run games is the longest since 1980:

Team                  Year    Streak

Houston Astros 1997 10 Chicago White Sox 1984 8 California Angels 1987 6 Seattle Mariners 1990 6 Los Angeles Dodgers 1982 6 New York Mets 1996 6 Milwaukee Brewers 1983 6

The Astros have significant problems, ones that need to be filled. While
having outfield depth is nice, Houston is starting to run the risk of making
the mistake the Anaheim Angels did from 1997 through 1999: not using their
outfield depth to fix gaping holes. They need to convert Daryle Ward
or Moises Alou into a shortstop and possibly some relief help.
Bill Spiers is an excellent utilityman but a problem as an everyday
shortstop, and it’s apparent that Doug Henry is done.

But rather than panicking and doing something silly to Larry Dierker, or
trading one of the keys to the team’s future, like Lance Berkman,
what the Astros mostly need to do is recognize that their position is more
about bad breaks and less about the team’s talent level. They can still win
the division.

The other big story in the NL is the St. Louis Cardinals, who are on pace to
score well over 1,000 runs and have the two best players in the NL this
year, Jim Edmonds and Mark McGwire. The Cardinals’ offense is
winning games in part because of the moves Walt Jocketty made over the
winter. Jocketty acquired inning-eating starters like Darryl Kile and
Andy Benes to stabilize a pitching staff that had too many people
jumping from role to role the past few years.

The worry with the Cardinals has to be their health. McGwire has missed time
with back pain, Fernando Tatis is out for at least another month with
a groin injury and Edmonds, Ray Lankford and Fernando Vina all
have considerable injury histories. The Astros will make a run; whether the
Cardinals hold them off will depend almost entirely on keeping these players
in the lineup 90% of the time.

In other news:

The Braves are really good. Yawn.

The Mets have struggled, as their offense has slipped to sixth in the league
in Equivalent Average
and their bullpen, so dominant in 1999, has regressed considerably.
They’re hanging on thanks to a rotation that has been better then expected,
with Al Leiter and Rick Reed healthy and effective, and
Glendon Rusch a pleasant surprise. Mike Hampton‘s last three
starts (23 1/3 IP, one earned run, 17/1 strikeout-to-walk ratio) have been
encouraging as well. They won’t catch the Braves, but they should hang
around the wild-card race.

They’ll be chasing the Expos, who are trying to prove that you can
build an offense around high batting averages. That’s not entirely fair, as
Vladimir Guerrero, Rondell White and Jose Vidro are all
hitting for plenty of power as well. The ‘Spos are last in the NL in walks
drawn and just 11th in OBP, making them a mere seventh in runs per game and
eighth in EqA.

They have been getting great pitching, especially from two right-handers on
whom who analysts and Expos fans have waited for quite some time. Javier
Vazquez
and Carl Pavano are throwing strikes and keeping the ball
in the park, and have a combined ERA of 3.01 in 18 starts. The team could
have three aces, but for the bizarre decision to move Dustin
Hermanson
to the bullpen in Ugueth Urbina‘s absence. Hermanson
has a 7.36 ERA as a reliever and has given up runs in three of his six
appearances, so hopefully they’ll abandon this plan soon.

Joe Sheehan can be reached at jsheehan@baseballprospectus.com.