It was during the All-Star break last week that many of the sports gurus heard on national TV signaled our Houston Astros as dead for 2008 and anointed the Chicago Cubs as the National League team headed for the world series this October.
And it could very well happen this way, despite the fact there still are some 60 games yet to be played this season.  As bad as our Astros have been at times this year, they gave the Cubbies all they could handle and then some during last weekend’s 3-game series played to sellout crowds at Minute Maid Park.
The Astros’ makeshift starting pitching rotation held those big Chicago bats at bay Friday and Saturday as veteran Brian Moehler and revitalized lefty Wandy Rodriguez each only allowed the Cubbies a single run.  Unfortunately, Moehler was not credited with the mound win as Houston won 2-1 Friday and 4-1 Saturday night.  
On Sunday afternoon, workhorse Brandon Backe pitched well enough to win, but the Astros’ bats went silent for him as he left trailing 4-0 in a game that ended up 9-0.  Houston continued to give the Cubs fits at Minute Maid Park, winning five of seven so far this season.
The baseball writers are trying to be kind to the Cubbies, who have not won a world series since 1908, by giving the Wrigley Field faithful hope that 99 years of baseball’s longest stretch of futility will end this season.
Before the season started at their spring training site at Mesa, AZ, second-year manager, Lou Piniella, emphasized the fact that the team can’t make up for or worry about the 99 or 100 Cubs’ teams before.
“We have to stand on our own merit and go out and play baseball,” members of the team recall Piniella say at spring training.  “I know it’s a story for people to read, but I don’t think we buy into it.”
The Cubs got hot in early May, taking over first place in the NL Central on May 11 and remaining there ever since in having eight players chosen for the All-Star game.  
Their well-balanced offense leads the league in runs scored with an average of 5.4 per game and has four players who have driven in at least 50 runs.  The Cubbies boast the major league’s best on-base percentage at .360 and are averaging four walks a game, which is one more per contest than last season.
The starting pitching rotation was solidified with the recent addition of hard-throwing right-hander Rich Harden in a trade with the Oakland A’s.  Harden joins ace Carlos Zambrano, Ryan Dempster and lefty Ted Lilly.  However, the Astros defeated Lilly and Zambrano last weekend before being blanked by the crafty Dempster.
Piniella has done a great job in the short time he has been the Cubbies’ skipper.  On June 3, 2007, the Cubs stood at 22 and 31, seven and one half games behind the NL Central leader.  Since then, the Cubs have posted the best record in the National League (120-83) and this season they reached 50 wins before the end of June for the first time since 1969.
But long-time Cubs followers know from past experiences that such glowing projections of the team’s chances to win at all always seem to have a way of unraveling as summer progresses to fall for the Cubs, who haven’t been to the World Series since 1945.
Even our Astros got a brief taste of the World Series in 2005, but have been on a steady decline ever since.  The pitching staff has more minor leaguers than major leaguers, and took a hit when ace Roy Oswalt was put on the disabled list last week.  However, the Astros have a 31-12 record when they get a quality start from a pitcher.
The catching situation is a joke with 39-year-old veteran Brad Ausmus hitting .213 and highly-touted rookie J.R. Towles stinking up the stadium at .143.  The only catcher on the roster who seems to know what to do with a bat in his hand is Humberto Quintero, who is on the D/L.
Quintero recently got whacked on the top of his noggin on a follow-through swing of a bat and suffered a concussion.  We got to watch him play for the Corpus Christi Hooks Sunday night on FSN as he rehabilitates before returning to the Astros later this week.  Unfortunately, Humberto didn’t hit the ball out of the infield, but he did hit it, which is more than Towles has done recently.
This Korner is not counting the Astros out of the playoffs just yet, but is hoping for some sort of miracle to happen like it did in 2005.  We expect the Astros to get hot the day after we all dig out from that surprise July snowstorm that’s sure to come.
KWICKIES…If anyone was able to stay awake for the end of that 15-inning All-Star marathon last week, they would have seen a great baseball game that eventually was won by the American League 4-3.  The game had a lot more pressure on the pitchers than the hitters, who didn’t do a whole lot.  Our Astros were well-represented with first baseman Lance Berkman driving in a run with a sacrifice fly and reserve shortstop Miguel Tejada delivering a pair of hits and playing more innings than most players.  Houston native Scott Kazmir of Tampa Bay was the winning pitcher while ex-Astro Brad Lidge suffered the loss.
Orange’s Scott Sterling finished 75th in last weekend’s PGA-U.S. Bank Championship golf tournament played in Milwaukee.  He had rounds of 70-68-75-70—283 to finish 19 strokes behind first-time tour winner Richard S. Johnson and pocketed a check for $7,600.  
The Lamar Cardinals, who were in the East Division of the Southland Conference for the past two seasons, will move to the West Division for the next two years, joining all Lone Star State opponents in that division.  The Cards will be in the same division as A&M Corpus Christi, Sam Houston State, Texas-Arlington, Texas-San Antonio and Texas State.  The East Division will consist of McNeese State, Central Arkansas, Nicholls State, Northwestern State, Southeastern Louisiana and Stephen F. Austin.
JUST BETWEEN US…History always seems to repeat itself when it comes to Australian Greg Norman leading a golf tournament after 54 holes.  The 53-year-old Norman, who married tennis great Chris Evert three weeks ago and was still on his honeymoon while competing in the British Open, had an opportunity to become the oldest major champion.  Instead, he lost his 2-shot lead on the third hole Sunday, shot a 77 and settled for third place.  This marked the seventh time in his career that Norman lost a tournament on the final day when leading after 54 holes.  Irishman Padraig Harrington fired a 69 to win the British Open and became the first European in more than a century to win golf’s oldest championship two years in a row.  Norman admitted that he spent more time playing tennis with Chris this year than he did on the golf course.

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