The mark of a championship major league baseball team is to be able to play .500 on the road and have a winning record at home. Our Houston Astros returned from a week-long trip to San Diego and Chicago with their tails tucked between their legs and in last place in the NL Central Division after winning only one game in each city.
What’s so frustrating is that the Astros led in most of those five road losses, but either the starting or relief pitchers were unable to protect the leads they were given in the early going.

However, they were able to come from behind against Padres’ bullpen ace Trevor Hoffman, the major league’s winningest relief pitcher of all time, thanks to a ninth inning three-run home run by Astros’ slugger Lance Berkman for one of their road victories.

In fact, Houston was one strike away from starting the 2008 season 0-3, behind 6-5 with two out and two on when the slugging first baseman launched a shot over the centerfield fence—Berkman’s first career hit off Hoffman—and the Astros went on to beat San Diego 9-6.

On Friday afternoon Astros’ new shortstop Miguel Tejada broke a 2-2 tie in the top of the eighth inning with a run scoring triple and then scored what turned out to be the winning run, thanks to some shoddy fielding by the Cubbies.

Houston jumped out in front on a two-run home run by rookie catcher J. R. Towles in the top of the fourth inning. Starting pitcher Chris Sampson blanked the Cubs until the bottom of the seventh until a two-run single by Geovany Soto tied the score at 2-2, leading to Tejada’s heroics in the top of the next inning.

The Astros had to start thinking about perhaps coming back to Houston with a 4-3 record on this initial road trip, sending ace Roy Oswalt to the mound Saturday and coming back with workhorse Brandon Backe on Sunday.

And it appeared that scenario had a good chance of happening, despite the fact Berkman had to be pulled from the game with muscle spasms in his neck and third baseman Ty Wigginton fractured his thumb when he was spiked in the fifth inning.
Despite having two ailing starters on the sidelines, Houston was leading 5-2 and all Oswalt had to do was protect that three-run lead. But the persistent Cubbies scored one run in the sixth inning and two runs off Roy O in the seventh. Oswalt was lifted by Manager Cecil Cooper in favor of Oscar Villarreal, who walked his only batter.
Cooper called on rookie left-hander Wesley Wright to face Kosuke Fukudome, the Cubbies new Japanese left-handed hitting outfielder, who greeted Wright with a two-run double, snapping the tie and putting the Cubbies ahead 7-5.

Wright was quickly replaced by Geoff Geary, who gave up a double to Mark DeRosa, driving in Fukudome and upping the count to 8-5. The Astros scored a pair of runs in the eighth, but lost 9-7.

Sunday’s rubber game of the three-game weekend series was equally as frustrating for our ‘Stroes as Backe pitched as well as Cubbies’ ace Carlos Zambrano and left for a pinch-hitter in the top of the seventh trailing 2-1. But shortstop Miguel Tejada belted his first homer as an Astro, tying the score a 2-2 and taking Backe off the hook.

Villarreal took over the mound chores for Houston and promptly gave up a home run to Cubs’ slugger Derrek Lee, which ended up being the difference in the game as the Cubs won the contest 3-2, sending the Astros home with a 2-5 road trip.

The Astros first home stand of the 2008 season began Monday at Minute Maid Park against the St. Louis Cardinals, who were supposed to be battling Houston and Pittsburgh for the lower half of the NL Central Division standings.

However, the Cardinals surprised the baseball world by winning five of their first six games and instead of occupying the lower part of the standings, were tied for first place with the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central going into the three-game series in Houston.

The 5-1 start is the Cardinals’ best since 2000, when they began the season at 7-1. But this is a season that began with reduced expectations as four St. Louis pitchers—Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder, Matt Clement and Joel Pineiro—started the year on the 15-day disabled list.

But St. Louis ’ injury-riddled starting pitching staff is coming off a 3-0 shutout against Washington . The improvised starting rotation has only given up four runs in 36 1/3 innings for an earned run average of less than 1.00. And with the Astros hitting less than .200 as a team, this could be a disastrous three-game series.

And one quirk Cardinals’ manager Tony La Russa has when making out his starting lineup is that he places his pitcher in the No. 8 slot instead of the traditional ninth or last spot.

KWICKIES…Former LCM star baseball player Clayton Ehlert is having a good season at Texas A&M this spring, currently sporting a 4-2 mound record with the Aggies.

Although Lamar’s eight-game conference winning streak was halted Saturday by Nicholls State , the Cardinal baseball team won the three-game series last weekend with a 7-2 victory over the Colonels Sunday afternoon. Lamar blew a 4-1 lead Saturday by allowing seven runs in the final two innings, including a walk-off three-run homer in the bottom o the ninth to give the Colonels an 8-5 victory. It was the fourth straight series win for the Big Red who stand at 10-2 in the Southland Conference and 20-10 overall. The Cards journey to Houston to play nationally-ranked Rice (23-10) Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.

Orange’s Scott Sterling got to play in a golf tournament relatively close to home and fired rounds of 70-71-73-71—285 and finished 13 strokes behind PGA-Houston Open winner Johnson Wagner last weekend at the Redstone Golf Club off Beltway 8 in Humble. Sterling pocketed a $26,880 check for his effort.

A tip of the Korner Kap to Sunset Grove Country Club golfer Randy Harrison for getting a hole-in-one last week on the 143-yard No. 12 hole. Randy received a $100 check for his effort and said that was his fourth ace, but only the first one where he received anything for it.

JUST BETWEEN US….Congrats to the West Orange-Stark Mustangs for winning the District 21-3A track and field championship last weekend with a total of 150 points. Host Silsbee finished second with 130 points followed by Bridge City with 111. Winning gold medals for the winning Mustangs were Josh Gloston in the 100 meters, Trey Franks in the 200 meters, the 400 relay team of Franks, Gloston, Seth Thomas and James Haynes, the 800 relay team of Franks, Thomas, Haynes and Cedric Dantzier and the 1,600 relay team of Gloston, Ronnie Dennis, James Ross and Nicholas Reed. Gold medal winners for Bridge City included Corey Smith in the 400 and 800 meter runs and Timothy Cude in the 1,600 meter and 3,200 meter runs. Field event winners for WO-S included Eric Arnold in the shot put and Haynes in the triple jump.