It would appear that Microsoft didn’t like Friday’s column. I downloaded a Windows Update sometime last week, and when I turned my computer off Saturday night–prompting the install of the updates–I woke up the next morning with a very expensive paperweight.

I’d like to say I’m dealing with this well, but really, writing this opening is the first productive act I’ve performed in 30 hours. I’m up now mostly because the fetal position was starting to hurt my back. While I wait for a Windows XP CD from Dell that may or may not solve my problem, I’m operating at about 50% efficiency, kind of like Eric Chavez, patching together a solution with a Blackberry and Sophia’s computer. I miss my laptop like I miss Don Mattingly at-bats and Entenmann’s blackout cake and “SportsNight.” Be patient with me this week, especially if you’re waiting for a response to an e-mail I have no hope of seeing again until later this week, if ever.

The Astros had a better weekend than I did. They swept a four-game series with the Cardinals to move within 3 ½ games of first place, adding another race to a slim last-week slate. With Monday’s comeback win over the Phillies, they got to .500 and gained another game on the Cards, moving to 2 ½ back with six to play. The Cardinals have a game with the Giants that looked like it had no chance to be made up a week ago; now, the possibility of the Giants having to fly to St. Louis next Sunday night is real, so you can imagine that they’re among the Cards’ biggest fans this week.

The Cardinals don’t seem able to handle success, following up a 4-1 homestand that all but locked up the division with a 1-6 road trip that opened the door to a potential collapse. The Cardinals had a seven-game lead on the Reds and an eight-and-a-half game lead on the Astros at the end of play last Tuesday. Today, those numbers are 3 ½ and 2 ½. Yes, even the Reds are still alive, thanks in part to a couple of comeback wins of their own over the Cubs the last few days.

It’s not like the Astros hammered the Redbirds over the weekend. They trailed in two of the games in the bottom of the eighth, and were tied in the other two in the bottom of the seventh. They won three of the four games in their last at-bat, and Sunday’s game swung on a couple of very close calls in the seventh inning. They scored 26 runs in the series, which is well past what they usually put up in four games, and they scored 14 runs after the sixth inning. They weren’t “lucky” in any common sense of the word, but the series was an example of what we mean when we say that the outcome of any one game or series of games isn’t predictable or necessarily an indicator of two teams’ relative strength. The Astros got some big hits in high-leverage situations, and if they’d gotten just one less, they’d be on the brink of elimination.

Give Phil Garner credit for helping the winning streak happen. He’s done some fairly creative things of late, using Morgan Ensberg in the #2 slot of the lineup, making Luke Scott the everyday cleanup hitter, and turning Chris Burke into a near-everyday player. With three outs in the lineup–Adam Everett, Brad Ausmus, and the pitcher–Garner has squeezed as much offense as he can out of the other six slots. The trip to St. Louis aside, he’d be helped by moving Burke to second base, playing Willy Taveras in center, and benching Craig Biggio, but that may be a fight he just won’t pick. Taveras is an excellent center fielder, and the defensive difference alone in that alignment would be worth enough, before considering Biggio’s .304 OBP in the leadoff spot.

Whatever they’ve done, though, the Astros don’t get back into this race without help from the Cardinals’ bullpen. Tony La Russa’s relievers allowed 12 runs in 9 1/3 innings, earning the losses in the last three games. Virtually no one did his job: Adam Wainwright and Braden Looper gave up a series of singles to weak-hitting right-handed batters in Friday night’s loss, while Tyler Johnson allowed a critical single to Lance Berkman in the middle of that comeback and the game-winning homer to Luke Scott on Saturday. La Russa pioneered the approach of chasing matchups, but over the weekend his matchup guys let him down. Monday night, it was Brad Thompson surrendering a tiebreaking run in the seventh on the way to a 6-5 loss, blemishing an otherwise effective night for the pen.

This has become a serious issue for the Cardinals, one made worse by the fact that they’ve got to play the Padres, who are fighting for a division title themselves. Up seven games with 13 to play, they’re now down to 2 ½ ahead with seven to play. The only precedent for losing a lead of that size with so few games to play is the 1964 Phillies, the mere mention of whom makes it a little hard to breathe. That team had a six-game lead with 12 to play and lost the first ten, which allowed the Cardinals to fly past them and win the NL pennant by a game.

Now, for the good news: Even with their lead being having been cut by 70% in a week, the Cardinals have a 91% chance to reach the playoffs. It’s easy to forget how hard it is to make up 2 ½ games in a week, especially when one team just made up six games in six days, but the fact is, it doesn’t happen very often. Even after having everything go right for six days, the Astros need it all to go right for six more. This graph gives you an idea of how small a change the last six days has made on the race, and how far the Astros still have to go to win. They’re starting Jason Hirsh tomorrow and Matt Albers Saturday. They’re spending the week on the road. Beginning tonight, they’re playing a very frisky Pirates team.

If 2006 is going to be remembered as something other than Mauch’s Revenge, the Cardinals are going to have to find a way to hold an opponent under six runs. It may be unfair to put that on one player, but with Chris Carpenter going to the mound tonight, it really is on him. La Russa went the distance with him last week, electing to not turn Lance Berkman around with the tying run on and two outs. Berkman hit a two-run homer that started the Astros on the road to the sweep. Tonight, the Padres will run as many as six left-handed hitters at Carpenter, and remember that the Pads are actually a very good offensive team, one whose overall numbers are hurt by the cricket pitch they call a home park.

The Cards need this one tonight. They need their stars to pull it together and pull them out of the slump. La Russa isn’t going to panic and start Carpenter three times in seven days–as Mauch did with a decreasingly effective Jim Bunning in 1964–so Carpenter can go to the mound tonight on full rest and with a chance to change the storyline in the NL Central. The Cardinals are still the best team in the division and the overwhelming favorites to win it; that they’ve made it interesting just gives us more to talk and write about this week.

I spent Sunday trying to resuscitate my laptop, so I missed Trevor Hoffman‘s 479th career save, the one that made him the all-time leader in that category. It was inevitable he would get there, and it’s just as inevitable, given the procession of that record, that he’ll be passed. It may be Mariano Rivera, or it may be Chad Cordero, or it may be someone who hasn’t even saved a game yet, a Logan Kensing or an Angel Guzman who moves to the bullpen, just as Rivera did at 26, and subsequently becomes a Hall of Famer.

Hoffman setting the record just doesn’t change much for me. He’s one of the five or six best relievers in history, second only to Rivera at the position of “save specialist,” and he still would have been those things if he’d retired last month. At the same time, his role is an extremely specific, protected one; Hoffman has been used as narrowly as any pitcher in baseball history, especially in recent years. He’s been incredibly successful in that role, but it’s hard to not consider him a product of his usage; certainly the saves mark is the direct result.

Still, what’s important is that while many pitchers have become closers and had successful careers, only a very few have combined Hoffman’s effectiveness and longevity. He’s not Jeff Reardon or Lee Smith, whose Hall of Fame cases rested largely on holding a single career record. Hoffman didn’t need a 479th save to be a legitimate candidate for Cooperstown, and even if he is passed by Rivera before he becomes eligible, he’ll make an excellent selection.

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