In the National League wild-card race (“The race so complicated no one wants to talk about it”) one of the interesting contrasts that’s been a huge factor has been the resurgence of Roy Oswalt, against the ineffectiveness of Jason Schmidt.

Oswalt’s only 27, but because he’s been in the league a few years we tend to forget that while he’s an established veteran, he may very well still be on the upswing.

On Sunday Oswalt pitched seven innings, struck out five, walked three, and didn’t give up a home run. The Astros won. The last time they lost a game Oswalt pitched in was Aug. 22; to get the second one you have to go back another month, to July 17. He hasn’t always been outstanding, but the Aug. 22 game, when he went 2.1 IP and gave up five runs (four unearned), was the only time since the break he’s really been bad and hasn’t given the team at least a good chance to win.

Oswalt’s contribution in just chewing innings should be recognized as well. He and Roger Clemens both have nearly twice as many innings pitched as the third-highest pitcher (Tim Redding with 97 is just over half of Clemens’ 186 IP) and of the other starters, only the injured Wade Miller and Andy Pettitte have ERAs under 5. If the Astros make the post-season, they’re going to run Clemens and Oswalt out as much as humanly possible.

Meanwhile, Jason Schmidt’s had a much rougher time of things. On Sunday he turned in a beautiful performance that took him only 110 pitches to complete, during which he struck out nine, walked two, and yielded just two runs on four hits. The previous time out, though, he gave up six runs in 6.1, albeit in Denver. A a couple of weeks ago, it took him 106 pitches to get through 4.1 innings. He stuck out eight that day, but struggled with his control, and left much earlier than the Giants would have liked. The start before that, Schmidt struggled through just 3.1 innings–this time eight strikeouts, 86 pitches. Schmidt’s shutout yesterday wasn’t much different than a couple games he’s thrown this year (8/12 – complete game shutout, 11 K, 1 BB). But unlike Oswalt, you could throw a 5 IP, 6 R, 5 K, 4 BB start in there and it wouldn’t look out of place.

Now, the expectation of two extra innings a start may not seem like much. But I’d have to argue that in this case, it’s a lot. Oswalt and Clemens are working deep into games, which offers the Astros the chance to use the strong, Brad Lidgeful back of their bullpen instead of their weaker middle men. Aside from Schmidt, the two most active Giants starters have been Kirk Rueter and Brett Tomko, neither of whom are regularly work deep into games. Rueter’s been particularly ineffective this year; his strikeout rate has plunged to a microscopic 2.7/9 IP, and the resulting raft of balls in play has netted a hits-per-nine rate of 11.1/9 IP. Looking over Rueter’s season starts, you might notice that since July 1:

5-6 IP: 8
6-7 IP: 4
7+ IP:  1

While the Astros look like they’ve got two playoff-ready pitchers in prime form as they shoot for a possible short-series NLCS, the Giants have Jason Schmidt, talented but also shaky enough to raise doubts and cross fingers, and a vague hope that someone else will step up to take the ball. They also have Barry Bonds, of course, which makes things a little closer. But as we approach the weight of the post-season, the outcome of this race is going may be decided by Oswalt and Schmidt, and it’s going to be a lot of fun to watch.

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