The Houston Astros still reside in the bottom portion of the National League Central Division standings after Sunday’s action, but the big difference is they have cut the deficit of games-behind in half in the last couple of weeks. Going into Tuesday’s game against the Texas Rangers, the Astros stood only four games behind division co-leaders Milwaukee and St. Louis.

This is because Houston has won its last five series and has done it with many faces unfamiliar to the diehard Houston Astros’ fans.
Injuries have beset several of the regular players and the reserves replacing these sidelined players have been doing a bang-up job both offensively and with the leather in the field. And surprisingly, many of these subs are much quicker afoot than the players they are replacing.

Earlier in the season, the Astros were jumping out to early leads that the bullpen was unable to hold. The team had a big problem adding to that lead in the middle and later innings, resulting in several frustrating losses.

And although Houston’s minor league system has not been anything to write home about, the choices of youngsters being elevated to the major leagues before they were quite ready has produced a great mixture with some of the seasoned veterans who have remained healthy.

When these untested players were thrown into the action, they have responded with some very timely hitting, heads-up base running and some very good defense, not to mention that the relief pitching has been much improved.

The key to the increased amount of victories has been that the hitting has improved immensely from everyone, even reserve catcher Humberto Quintero, who has been flirting with that coveted .300 batting average because of his new-found ability to hit the outside pitch to right field.

Shortstop Miguel Tejada went on a tear at the end of last month by hitting safely in 17 games which elevated his batting average to the top of the National League. Right fielder Hunter Pence was matching Tejada hit for hit and moved up to the second best average before hitting a slump last week that hopefully was broken Sunday with a home run.

Slugging first baseman Lance Berkman has been steadily raising his batting average and is hitting around .350 for the month of June and brought his anemic season average to the .260 level. He hit career home run No. 300 Saturday night to give Houston a lead it never relinquished and then hit another in Sunday’s 8-3 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks.

“If you’re going to be a good ball club you can’t rely on one or two guys to carry the team,” Berkman said after Sunday’s win at Arizona. “This is the most balanced lineup we’ve had since I got here.”

What Berkman was referring to was players like lead-off batter Michael Bourn, who is hitting around .300 and is leading the league in stolen bases. In his last at-bat Sunday, Bourne hit a run-scoring single, stole second and third base and scored on a grounder to third after the ball was thrown to first. He personally manufactured Houston’s eighth run. Bourn is hitting .378 with runners in scoring position, which is fifth best in the league.

Houston went 7-for-18 with runners in scoring position against the Diamondbacks and in Sunday’s 8-3 win, scored eight runs on eight hit and left only one runner on base.

And with everyday players like second baseman Kazuo Matsui and relief ace Jose Valverde on the disabled list for the past six weeks, the Astros had to find adequate replacements.

Jeff Keppinger was picked up at a bargain price before the season began and has done a great job filling in for Matsui. But he strained a muscle and has been hobbled so Edwin Maysonet came up from Round Rock to fill in and is hitting .375 in the process.

When third baseman Geoff Blum pulled a hamstring last week, Maysonet moved to third and reserve Matt Kata went to second and neither the defense nor the offense missed a beat with the revamped lineup.

Then Carlos Lee, who had started every game this season, left the game with leg cramps in Saturday’s game and was replaced by Jason Michaels, who ripped a bases-loaded single in Sunday’s game to keep a scoring rally alive.

Reliever Chris Sampson, who is leading the pitching staff with a 1.66 earned run average, pulled a muscle in his hip and could be out for a while. But Jeff Fulchino came up from Round Rock and is 2-1 in his short time in the majors with a nifty 2.77 ERA.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it, good baseball is the point,” said Cecil Cooper, the Astros’ happy manager. “Good baseball is what we’ve got to play and what we’ve been playing.”
Ace starter Roy Oswalt had a strong performance Saturday, allowing only one run in six innings. The Astros had to hang on to win 6-5, but they scored some meaningful runs late in the game to preserve Oswalt’s third victory of the season.

Only former American League batting champion Darin Erstad (.130) and starting pitcher Brandon Backe (12.00 ERA) are having trouble getting started this season.

The Astros continue their road trip Tuesday at the Texas Rangers for three inter-league games then move to Minnesota for three this weekend. They continue with their inter-league schedule at home next week against the Kansas City Royals and Detroit Tigers.

KWICKIES…Tiger Woods is a heavy favorite to win this weekend’s U.S. Open being played at Bethpage Black, on Long Island. He’s coming off an outstanding win in Jack Nicklaus’ PGA Memorial Tournament and should be hard to beat. Also on hand for the Open will be Brian Gay, who qualified by winning wire-to-wire in last weekend’s St. Jude’s Classic.

The Dan R. Hooks Football Camp will be held Thursday and Friday this week at West Orange-Stark High School for youngsters second through eighth grade. Registration will be Thursday at 7:30 a.m.-8 a.m. and will end at noon both days. Several Texas Longhorn players, including former Mustangs star Earl Thomas will be on hand to assist at the camp. For more information contact Eric Guillory at 882-4718.

It wasn’t a big surprise that the Los Angeles Lakers are the NBA World Champions for the 15th time in their franchise history. Winning it in five games stunned a few, but this Korner believes the best team won. Head Coach Phil Jackson won his NBA-record 10th championship ring and Kobe Bryant won his fourth Most Valuable Player award. Orlando was favored by 3 ½ points in Sunday’s game but couldn’t stop the Lakers in the 99-86 final score.

The Chicago Cubbies, who have seen their team batting average slump from .278 last season to .246, fired hitting coach Gerald Perry and replaced him with Von Joshua, from Triple A Iowa. The Cubs are ranked 13th in batting average and 14th in runs scored after being shut out Saturday 2-0 by Minnesota—the third time in four games they had scored one run or less.

JUST BETWEEN US…Wonder how true the rumor circulating town is that Mark Foreman is thinking about coming out of retirement and re-joining Head Coach Dan Hooks’ coaching staff this fall?