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OFFENSE


The Astros boast a multi-faceted attack that is the National
League’s best. In previous years, the team depended almost
exclusively on leadoff hitter extraordinaire Craig Biggio and
slugging first baseman Jeff Bagwell, and not much else. This
year, the “Killer B’s” have been joined by a solid supporting
cast, and the results have been nothing short of outstanding.
The Astros added potent third cog Moises Alou, who has responded
with the finest season of his career. He’s a gap hitter with
power, but he had 38 HR through late August and has hit none since.
RF Derek Bell is similar, minus some power and patience, and Carl
Everett
has been effective this year. The Astros are a great
baserunning team, stealing 155 bags this season with a 75% success
rate, and have multiple basestealing threats in the lineup, to the
consternation of opposing pitchers. Overall, Larry Dierker is
content to let his team swing away, and this policy has resulted
in great success over the regular season. The Astros have almost no
left-handed hitting other than tokens like Billy Spiers, which could
hurt them against the Padres.


The Padres have a solid offense marred by injuries and poor
Septembers. They actually outhomered the Astros this year,
led by reborn LF Greg Vaughn‘s 50, but scored over 100 fewer
runs than Houston. Part of that is Qualcomm Stadium, which
severely cut into run-scoring this season. Another factor were
several injuries, which helped keep Quilvio Veras, Tony
Gwynn
, Ken Caminiti, and Wally Joyner out of 121 games between
them. All of these hitters had good seasons, but none of them
are completely healthy as the postseason begins. CF Steve
Finley
soaked up almost 500 PA in the top two spots in the
order, doing almost nothing with them. Clearly, he’s not the
player he used to be. Neither is SS Chris Gomez, who has been
very solid for the last half of the season. Team speed is almost
an afterthought, as leadoff hitter Veras and Finley were hampered
by injuries and ineffectiveness. Nevertheless, this team’s offense
is too good for the run manufacturing manager Bruce Bochy is
somewhat fond of. A telling stat – Runs scored/game in September:
Houston 4.5, San Diego 3.3.


DEFENSE


The Padres’ leathermen feature Finley’s acrobatics in center
field and Joyner’s deft work around the bag at first. Caminiti’s
all-world defense at third has been somewhat erratic this season,
as he again plays through various ailments. Range at the
outfield corners is a problem, as Greg Vaughn’s awesome offensive
season hasn’t meant anything in the field, and Gwynn continues to
lose range and effectiveness in right. Shortstop Gomez has a steady
glove but is not gifted with great range, and Quilvio Veras turns a
nifty deuce but has had problems with his throws this year.
Luckily, he’s throwing to vacuum cleaner Joyner at first; backup
first baseman Jim Leyritz is a notable step down. Carlos Hernandez
and Greg Myers split time at C. Myers is notably better at stopping
the running game than Hernandez, but overall the Padres are not a
difficult team to run on.


When the Astros take the field, watch for Carl Everett in center
and Derek Bell in right. Everett has had a problem with keeping
his head in the game in the past, but seems greatly improved this
season. Bell, a transplanted CF, may be the best defensive RF
in the game. He has a fine arm and excellent range. Moises Alou
is solid in left. Sean Berry and Bill Spiers platoon at third.
Berry is a better hitter but a much worse fielder, and Spiers
can also handle short and second base in a pinch. After years of
overrated defense, Biggio is a steady asset at second, and Ricky
Gutierrez
is a competent shortstop. Jeff Bagwell doesn’t have
Joyner’s glove but he more than makes up for it with his range.
Brad Ausmus is a good defensive catcher who had an off-year
stopping controlling the running game. He can’t block the plate,
but he can do everything else.


STARTING PITCHING


For most of the season, the Astros seemed to be overmatched by
the Padres and Braves in this department. That changed dramatically
with the addition of ace Randy Johnson, who has been almost
unbeatable since his trade to the National League. The Padres
struggled against him in Seattle earlier this year, and he looks
to continue his season’s good work (11 G, 1.28 ERA) in the playoffs.
He has been especially tough in the Astrodome. Following Johnson,
the Astros have Shane Reynolds, Mike Hampton, and Jose Lima in the
rotation, while former Pad person Sean Bergman moves to the pen.
Reynolds nearly bagged 20 wins this season, but he could prove
vulnerable to the Padres’ left-handed bats. Hampton started off
strong, and had a particularly good September. If the Astros are in
trouble going into the fourth game, they might bounce Lima for Randy
Johnson.


The Padres counter the Big Unit with Kevin Brown, who has been
outstanding this season, and especially in August and September.
It’s not his fault the Padres have had trouble winning lately.
In Game 2, the Padres will start Andy Ashby, the most important
player in this series. Before the break, Ashby was a monster;
after it, he was very hittable. Rumors of injury are rampant,
and his control has gone out the window. If he pitches like
he’s capable, the Padres have two aces to Houston’s one. If he
continues to have problems, this could be a short series. He did
have a good final start this season in Los Angeles. Third starter
for the Padres will be Joey Hamilton, who has rebounded from his
poor numbers to start the season. Hamilton’s main problem is his
control; when he loses it, his strikeouts turn into bases on
balls. Always a fast worker, pitching coach Dave Stewart had
him concentrating and working more slowly later in the season,
and it seemed to pay off. Lefty Sterling Hitchcock moves to
the pen.


BULLPEN


The Padres have had some exceptional performances from their
rebuilt relief corps this year, led by closer Trevor Hoffman,
who has been his usual unhittable self. Setup man and top
righthander Dan Miceli is very tough on right-handed batters
and has exhibited good control this year. Former Astro Donne
Wall
has been a surprise, with good work in the bridge spot
between the starters and Miceli. A converted starter himself,
he’s good for multiple innings, so expect to see him early and
often if the starter gets into trouble. Top lefty Randy
Myers
isn’t the pitcher he was last year, but he isn’t Mark
Langston
either. He’s lost some juice on his fastball, and
he isn’t all that tough on lefties anymore; luckily, with the Astros’
shortage of left handed batters, he’ll likely be a nonfactor
in this series. Sterling Hitchcock probably joins the pen to help
out in long relief – a job he didn’t do well during the season –
though the organization is making some noises that he may
start Game 3, which wouldn’t be a good move on San Diego’s part.


The Astros bullpen is deep and effective. It all starts with
closer Billy Wagner, an injury victim during the regular season
who hasn’t pitched well since his return. Jay Powell has been
very good since his arrival from Florida. After struggling
with the Marlins, he’s flashing his strikeout-an-inning
heat and will be used as the setup man in the playoffs.
Doug Henry has pitched well most of the season, though he
tires and loses his effectiveness quickly. Scott Elarton has
been eased into the majors in relief, and has responded–he’s
striking out almost a batter an inning, and though his control
isn’t great he’s pitching effectively He averages about two
innings per game and can easily handle more work than that in
a pinch. Trever Miller is available as a token lefty, and
Sean Bergman moves to the pen after a successful campaign as
a starter.


BENCH


Houston brings whoever isn’t starting at 3B, and both Sean Berry
and Bill Spiers are tough hitters off the bench. Young prospect
Richard Hidalgo is the fourth outfielder, and hit very well despite
losing the starting job to Carl Everett due to an early-season injury.
Dave Clark is the team’s top lefty pinch-hitter when Spiers starts at
third. Once a very good player, he may be over the hill – he hasn’t
hit at all this year. Beyond that, the Astros have a thin bench. Utilityman
Tim Bogar and catcher Tony Eusebio are not serious threats
with their bats. Ultimately, the Astros lack of left-handed
bench players will likely hurt them more than anything else, as San
Diego’s best pitchers, both in the rotation and the pen, are all right-handers.


The Padres sport one of the strongest benches in the league. 1B/C
Jimmy Leyritz is the top Padre pinch-hitter, and will spell Joyner
at 1B against some lefties. He can hit anyone, and has excellent
patience. Left-handed Rockie import John VanderWal has had another
good season in his pinch-hitting role. Like Leyritz, he’s pretty
selective and has extra-base power. Last year, Mark Sweeney
was the top Padre pinch hitter. This year, he’s behind VanderWal
as the second lefty off the bench. Ruben Rivera, mainly around as
a defensive replacement and pinch runner, hit well most of the season,
but faltered lately. Infielder Andy Sheets and catcher Greg Myers,
solid backups, aren’t going to scare anyone.


OVERALL


The Astros have the stronger team, but their weaknesses play to the
Padres’ strengths. If the Astros can get to the back end of the Padre
bullpen, they’ll romp; if not, and if Andy Ashby reclaims his dominating
form, the Padres have a great chance. Whatever the outcome, this should
be a really fun series to watch. Prediction: Astros in 5.

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