On the evening of August 14, the Astros had just dropped two straight to the Expos and had lost eight of ten overall, dropping them to four games below .500. Despite lofty expectations and a ballyhooed off-season, the team was foundering. They’d gone through the machinations of both contender (trading for deadline prom queen Carlos Beltran) and non-entity (they’d fired manager Jimy Williams only weeks before and replaced him with the default-settings Phil Garner), and were apparently headed for oblivion.

Although at that time there was little reason for Houston partisans to check the wild-card standings, if they had they would’ve seen that the Astros were seven games off the pace and behind six teams in the chase for the final NL playoff berth. Heck, even the Mets were better off.

Since that date, the Astros have ripped off 19 wins in their last 21 games and now find themselves a half-game behind the Cubs in the NL wild-card race. As such, it’s finally reasonable to ask: Can they do it?

According to Clay Davenport’s Post-Season Odds Report, we can eliminate one path to glory. The Astros have roughly the same chance of winning the NL Central as we will of seeing a Lyndon LaRouche presidency. However, the Astros rise to mathematical significance in the wilder shores of the wild-card chase. Here’s how the NL Wild Card fray stacks up in terms of odds of making the post-season:

Team             Chance

Cubs              50.7%
Giants            25.5%
Astros            22.3%
Padres             7.4%
Marlins            3.2%
Phillies           0.1%

As you can see, the Cubs and Giants both have superior odds, but the Astros, with better than a one-in-five chance, are still drawing strong breath in this race.

Now let’s see how the Astros fare in terms of remaining schedule:

Team      Home/Road     Opp. Winning %

Cubs        13/13           .489
Giants       9/12           .500
Astros       9/14           .517

This should be harrowing news for the Astros. Not only do they play the toughest remaining docket, but only nine of their remaining 23 games are at home (although, to be fair, the Astros have been slightly better away from Minute Maid Park this season). Perhaps the best hope at leveling the schedule for Houston is that when they meet the Cardinals in the next-to-last series of the season, they catch the Cards in full-bore “rest our good players” mode. Aside from those slim hopes, the Astros are at a distinct disadvantage in terms of the schedule.

In order to better gauge how the Astros might fare for the balance of the season, it’s instructive to isolate the stuff of their recent hot streak. In recent weeks, the Astros’ run-prevention numbers have been, interestingly enough, worse than they’d been before the streak. However, the Astro batters have hit .279/.360/.481 since the All-Star break, which means they’ve been, roughly speaking, better than the Red Sox have been this season.

In August, when the bulk of the Astros’ recent hot streak took place, only the hapless Brad Ausmus appears to have played significantly beyond his expected level of performance, coming in at .297/.366/.406. The Astros haven’t been buoyed by a preponderance of fluke 30-day performances; what they’re doing is finally hitting like we thought they would. The upshot is that it’s less likely that they’ll suffer major regression, in terms of run scoring, over the season’s final weeks.

Another key will be whether the soft underbelly of the rotation (meaning Brandon Backe, Peter Munro and Carlos Hernandez) can achieve serviceability over the season’s final weeks. When 60% of your rotation has combined to allow 5.19 runs per game, it’s hard to indulge in fond dreams of the playoffs.

And can the bullpen hold up? The trade of Octavio Dotel, the flop of David Weathers and the loss of Dan Miceli to, of all things, pinkeye, have winnowed the bullpen down to one effective reliever: Brad Lidge. In my mind, Lidge has been the best reliever in baseball this season. In 78 1/3 innings, he’s posted a 4.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio and allowed just 2.07 runs per game. He’ll have a shot at becoming only the sixth strict reliever ever to strike out at least 150 batters in a single season. More to the point, Lidge is the lone Astro reliever presently on the active roster with a R/G of less than 5.0.

That’s a great deal of bullpen value confined to a reliever who’s on pace to throw a career-high of 92 1/3 innings. As great as Lidge has been (and as effective as he’s been in recent months), it’s essential that he not flag under the heavy workload.

To allay some of their pitching fears, it would be prudent for the Astros to go to a four-man rotation for the month of September. This would accomplish two things. One, half of their remaining starts would go to Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens. Two, it would allow Munro to work exclusively out of the bullpen, the role in which he’s been much more effective over the course of his career. The bullpen could be further fortified by Wade Miller, whose shoulder may be well enough for him to pitch the final two weeks of the season. The Astros have already indicated he’ll be used in relief if he does return.

(Another key? Score at least five runs. Houston this season is 58-13 when scoring five or more and 16-50 when tallying fewer than five.)

There’s nothing Houston can do about the rigorous schedule they face (or, for that matter, the bunny-tail softies left for the Cubs), but they can make some structural adjustments to the pitching staff in order to better their chances. They’d best do that right away if they’re to have any hope of making the postseason.

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