Although the All Star game is still a few days away, the first half of the 2008 major league baseball season has come and gone and our Houston Astros are presently playing a series with the Pittsburgh Pirates for last place in the National League’s Central Division.
The Astros and Pirates are jockeying for fifth place, trying to avoid that cellar, but the loser of this series surely will be implanted at the bottom of the division standings, to the dismay of their loyal fans who still are hoping for the same miracle that put them in the 2005 World Series after a terrible first-half start.

But from this Korner’s perspective, it ain’t gonna happen in 2008. There are too many players on the current 25-man roster who don’t even belong in the major leagues.

About midway through spring training, the front office announced the starting lineup for the 2008 Houston Astros, with most of the faces in that lineup unknown to fans who have followed the team throughout the years.

J. R. Towles was going to be the team’s first good hitting catcher since the early 1990’s. The way he tore up the pitching during his brief stint last September made the front office giddy with anticipation.

But what they didn’t factor into this dazzling equation was the fact Towles came up to the major leagues when all the team rosters expanded from 25 to 40 players. He did a majority of his hitting against minor league pitchers.

When the bell rang to start the 2008 season  the first of April, there were only 25 players on each roster, and 99 per cent of those players were bona fide major leaguers who were eager to earn some of that big money they were being paid.

Towles was so confused he didn’t recognize a slider from a resin bag and as his strikeout number rose, his batting average plummeted. Mercifully, the front office sent him back to the minors where he remained until his replacement, Humberto Quintero, was clobbered on top of his noggin with a bat and went on the disabled list with a concussion.

Centerfielder Michael Bourne was another projected starter at spring training who has major league defensive ability but can’t hit the side of a barn. He’s got to be the leadoff batter with the major league’s worst on-base percentage. What few base hits he does manage are either bunt singles or infield hits. We predict he’ll be in Round Rock before the summer ends.

Relief pitcher Oscar Villarreal came to Houston from the Atlanta Braves with high expectations, but very little success. He surrendered more home runs than any other National League relief pitcher. Thankfully, he’s down in Round Rock learning how to duck line drives.

The Astros were really proud to have their first regular Japanese player in Kazuo Matsui, who came to Houston from the Colorado Rockies. His credentials are top-notch, but he came to us as damaged goods, spending his second stint on the disabled list.
And poor first-year manager Cecil Cooper, he has to keep applying band-aids to his starting lineup because of either injury or ineffectiveness. It seems every time he puts ace closer Jose Valverde into a game BEFORE the ninth inning, he blows the lead.
That happened Sunday as the Astros were cruising with a 5-1 lead in Atlanta. Valverde came into the game in the eighth inning to protect a lead that had shrunk to 6-4 and walked a couple of batters who scored tying the game at 6-6.

The Astros battled ferociously until the 17th inning and lost 7-6 on a bases loaded hit off the left-centerfield fence by Atlanta slugger Mark Teixeira.  Oddly, the Astros’ last 16 runs going back four games all were scored with two outs. It’s good to score runs with two outs, but Houston won only one of those four games in which this strange phenomenon occurred.

The Astros went into Pittsburgh Monday with a dismal 41-47 record. If they won all six remaining games before the All-Star break they would reach .500. But don’t count on that happening even with Cooper’s revised lineup.

Actually the glue that has been holding the team together is the “Wise Men”—the veterans on the team who have been coming through to salvage what few wins the team has managed in the past month.

The Wise Men consist of journeymen Mark Loretta, Darin Erstad, Doug Brocail, David Newhan, Geoff Blum, Brad Ausmus and Brian Moehler. Whenever the Astros managed a victory, some of these guys usually played a big role in the win. The rest of the team is just not playing up to their capabilities, including All-Stars Lance Berkman and Miguel Tejada.

And if owner Drayton McLane, Jr. wants those turnstiles to keep spinning, he’d better come up with some sort of solution—trade somebody, fire somebody or raise hell in the club house—and do it pronto.

KWICKIES…It’s great to see Toby Foreman returning to Orange to coach the West Orange-Stark quarterbacks. After all, Toby practically grew up on the Mustangs’ practice field, first as a ball boy when his dad, Mark, was assisting Head Coach Dan Hooks, then as a Mustang player and later joining his dad as a Mustang coach.

Tennis buffs were treated to a very exciting men’s singles championship Sunday as Spain’s Rafael Nadal ended Roger Federer’s five year reign at Wimbledon. Federer rallied from two sets down and barely came up short in the nearly five-hour marathon match. Nadal became the first Spaniard to win Wimbledon since Manolo Santana in 1966 and the first man to win both the French Open and Wimbledon since Bjorn Borg in 1980.
Former Houston Astros closer Brad Lidge seems to be doing all right for himself since being traded to Philadelphia for hitless wonder Michael Bourn. Last weekend Lidge was given a lucrative three-year contract extension by the Phillies and also was named to the 2008 National League All-Star team. Bourn, meanwhile, has been hitless in his last 18 at-bats.

JUST BETWEEN US…While on vacation in Florida the last week in June, our granddaughter, first baseman Ryan Smith,  helped her fast pitch softball team from Lufkin win the ASA state tournament for age 14-and under by whipping all comers. The team scored 52 runs and allowed only seven and won three games by the tournament’s “mercy rule.” Lufkin won the state title by blanking the Alice Elite 7-0 in the championship game of the tourney played in San Marcos.