It was a long, hard struggle, but last week the Houston Astros finally reached the .500 mark. Now this mediocre target shouldn’t be where any team worth its salt would set the bar for, except six weeks ago the Astros were floundering in the National League Central Division cellar, 10 games under that .500 goal.

Manager Cecil Cooper at the time said it would be nice to play well enough up to the All-Star break to elevate their status to .500. The players got busy and each put out that little extra effort on all the phases of the game to improve their overall play and good things started to happen.

The early-season slump that first baseman Lance Berkman was fighting since spring training began to go away. The Astros’ slugger stopped swinging at borderline pitches whenever the had less than two strikes and started hitting more pitches on the outside portion of the plate to the opposite field and magically he began to get more base hits and consequently his batting average started to climb.
Berkman still isn’t anywhere near his lifetime batting average of over .300, but he’s raised it from the .150 level the first two months of the season to around .270 at the All-Star break. His home run production and RBI numbers are pretty much where they should be at the halfway point in the season, so things are looking up for the team’s leader.

Even Miguel Tejada and Hunter Pence, who both were named to the All-Star team, went into mini-slumps when the Astros were 10 games below .500. But when they caught fire along with Berkman, their batting averages increased dramatically and as a result, the team was winning games they lost without those big bats producing hits and runs.

Ace pitcher Roy Oswalt began to get a few runs whenever he was on the mound and his win total began to swell while his earned-run average dipped.

But before we pat too many Astros’ players on the back, congratulating them for their elevated play the past couple of weeks, we must also give thanks to the NL schedule-makers, who shoved a plethora of dog teams at Houston.

The Astros finished June with a nice winning record after they played four games at punchless San Diego June 29-July 2 and then met San Francisco, the ONLY team with a winning record so far this month, and were shut out twice before winning the finale.
They returned home to catch the Central Division’s worst team, Pittsburgh, and then finished the home stand with four games and the completion of a suspended May game against the hapless Washington Nationals, major league baseball’s WORST team.
Houston won three of four from the Nats, but managed to lose the 11-inning suspended game in which Washington was the home team at Minute Maid Park, 11-10. That marked the 10th of 13 series the Astros have now won and seven of 10 games, not counting the suspended game.

But the last two games against the Nationals were kind of weird to say the least. Washington pounded the Astros pitching Saturday night for a Nationals’ franchise-record 21 hits, including back-to-back-to-back home runs—a feat only the mighty New York Yankees accomplished earlier this season.

The four runs surrendered by reliever Felipe Paulino in the two innings he worked cost him his spot on the major league roster as he was optioned to Round Rock Sunday.

The final score of 13-2 marked the first time the Nats scored 13 runs since they outscored the Atlanta Braves 15-12 on July 20, 2008.
Less than 24 hours after the Astros’ pitching staff got pummeled by Washington, the Nats tied another franchise record by getting 11 hits Sunday but scoring no runs and losing to Houston 5-0, despite the headline carelessly splashed across the front page of the sports section Monday in Orange County’s only daily newspaper that said Washington won 5-0.

The Nationals loaded the bases in both the sixth and seventh innings but were unable to score in either frame.

Brian Moehler was credited with the win, but left the game in the seventh inning in favor of Alberto Arias, who leads the major leagues by increasing his scoreless inning streak to 19 1/3 innings. Arias hasn’t allowed a run since May 26. Kazuo Matsui blasted his third homer of the season with two teammates aboard to increase the lead to 4-0.

The Astros added another run and Cooper felt it was safe to bring in his closer Jose Valverde in the eighth inning, who somehow got credited for a save. That was the first time more than one Houston pitcher shared an 11-hit shutout since it was done in 1990 by Mark Portugal and Larry Anderson. 

After the All-Star break the 44-44 Astros will get to see how they fare against upper-echelon teams as they travel to the left coast for a four-game series with the Los Angeles Dodgers, major league baseball’s winningest team, before returning home for three-game series with the NL Central-leading St. Louis Cardinals followed by three games with the unpredictable New York Mets.

From there it will be series against the Chicago Cubbies, St. Louis again, San Francisco, Milwaukee and the Florida Marlins—all teams with non-losing records– through Aug 20 and we’ll see if our Astros are still at or above that .500 earmark they finally attained last week.

KWICKIES…Congrats are in order for Kerry Lamb, who works at the Sunset Grove Country Club pro shop, for getting a hole-in-one last week on the 143-yard par-3 No. 12 hole at Sunset. Kerry used an eight-iron and watched the golf ball disappear into the hole after one short hop.

Steve Stricker fired a 61 to tie a course-record Saturday and followed it up with rounds of 68 and 64 Sunday to win the PGA John Deere Classic Golf Tournament by three strokes and collect the $774,000 winning check. Former PNG and Lamar golfer Chris Stroud finished seven strokes behind Stricker and earned a check for $64,500.

And while on the topic of golf, the British Open which begins Thursday at Turnberry in southwestern Scotland can be seen on TNT Network at 5:30 a.m., 6 a.m. on Friday and Saturday and at 5 a.m. Sunday. TNT will replay Saturday’s action at 3 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tiger Woods is once again favored for this major much like he was for the Masters and U. S. Open that he failed to win.

One of the most exciting All-Star baseball games occurred in 1955 at Milwaukee’s County Stadium when the National League was down 5-0 and scored two runs in the seventh inning and three in the eighth. With the score tied at 5-5 in the 12th inning, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Stan “The Man” Musial homered on the first pitch he saw from Frank Sullivan of the Boston Red Sox to seal the 6-5 victory for the NL. No other All-Star team has come back from a five-run deficit and won, according to USA Today Sports Weekly.

JUST BEWEEN US…Hold ‘em poker players who each paid a $10,000 buy-in to compete for the $8.55 million first place prize in the 2009 World Series of Poker have been dropping like flies at the Rio Casino in Las Vegas. With some 200 players remaining out of the 6,400 who entered, tourney officials expect the event to be down to the final table of nine players by Wednesday night or early Thursday.