If there’s one thing we’ve learned after watching our Houston Astros conclude their Interleague schedule for this season is that they can hang in there with some pretty decent competition from the American League.

Of course if we go back a few seasons to when our heroes made it to the World Series and were crushed by the Chicago White Sox, that might not be the case. And the Texas Rangers took five of six from Houston this go-round.

However, nearly every game played last week was a one-run affair which the Astros won a bit more than their share of those tight ball games. That’s a good sign.

The one game that left a bad taste in our mouth was Sunday’s loss to the Detroit Tigers, who own first place in the American League Central Division and came into Minute Maid Park boasting a seven-game winning streak. 

Astros’ journeyman starting pitcher Russ Ortiz pitched one heck of a game for 7 1/3 innings and reliever Tim Byrdak mowed down the other two Tiger hitters to close out the eighth inning with Houston nursing a slender 3-2 lead.

But the ninth inning meant “ace closer” Jose Valverde was coming in to earn the mega millions owner Drayton McLane is overpaying him. This Korner believes Valverde is a good closer, but he has a block of granite sitting on his shoulders.

Now we’re not saying he’s dumb, but he certainly is very hard-headed. Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez is a very good catcher who has sat behind the plate more times than any other receiver in the history of the game.

Throw in the fact that he had called a brilliant game for both Ortiz and Byrdak before Valverde made his appearance and that he knew the Detroit hitters not only from this three-game series, but he was a member of the Tigers’ team for four years before signing with the Astros this spring. 

But Valverde shook off Rodriguez’s sign for a fast ball almost every time and elected to throw his split-finger pitch. But he didn’t throw one split-finger pitch for a strike and strikes were what Rodriguez was most interested in him throwing, especially after getting two easy outs on fast balls.

With two out and nobody on, Valverde got ahead of Marcus Thames and he kept shaking off Rodriguez sign for a fast ball and threw his split-finger pitch that he can’t control. Thames drew a walk and the next hitter, third baseman Brandon Inge was sitting on a fast ball after Valverde missed the strike zone with his split finger on the first pitch.

Needless to say he hit the ball so far that the engineer on the train above the Landry Boxes in left field ducked so he wouldn’t get hit by that massive home run that changed Houston’ s 3-2 lead into a heart-breaking 4-3 loss.

Valverde blew a save in the Kansas City series earlier last week and has blown four saves in 10 appearances so far this season in addition to surrendering four home runs in only 16 innings. 

As a former relief pitcher this Korner understands that the catcher knows what pitch to call and that walks and home runs aren’t conducive for a closer to be successful.

Valverde’s fast ball is generally clocked between 93-98 mph, very similar to that of Brad Lidge, who also had trouble with gopher balls when he was the Astros’ closer a few years ago. And like Lidge, Valverde’s fast ball is straight as a string—it doesn’t have the movement like fast ball’s thrown by Roy Oswalt, Ortiz or even rookie Felipe Paulino.

Lidge’s split finger pitch darted down in the dirt, but at least it was over the plate and the batter’s swung at it thinking it was a 97 mph fast ball. Valverde can’t get his split-finger pitch anywhere near the plate to tempt the eager batters.

This Korner thinks that McLane and the front-office brass can get two or three premium players for Valverde and either trade for a closer or settle for LaTroy Hawkins, who doesn’t give up as many home runs or walks as Valverde. The Astros have the entire month to see how many more leads Valverde blows before the trading deadline ends on July 31.

The team is beginning to get timely hitting when it counts and is getting quality starts from the current five-man pitching rotation. A win Sunday would have put the Astros only three games out of first place and given them a 36-37 record—the first time they were within one game of .500 since they were 1-2 the first week of April.

But now Houston took their 35-38 record on the road for a four game series at San Diego that began Monday and then a weekend series in San Francisco where the Giants are playing winning baseball with a record of 40-34 through Sunday’s action. The Astros will be fortunate to maintain their .500 record on the road after this West Coast jaunt.

KWICKIES…Although this Korner is probably the furthest thing from being a soccer fan, it was rather exciting that the upstart United States team made it all the way to the Confederations Cup final before blowing a 2-0 first-half lead and losing 3-2 to heavily-favored Brazil Sunday.

Kenny Perry shot a 63 in Sunday’s final round of the PGA Tour Travelers Championship tournament in Cromwell, Conn. to overtake third-round leader Paul Goydos and win the event by three strokes. The 48-year-old Perry set a tournament record with his 258 score over the four rounds. Port Neches-Groves and Lamar University star golfer Chris Stroud had rounds of 71-65-68-67—271 to collect a nifty check of $41,700. Orange’s Scott Sterling was two-under for the first two rounds and missed the cut.

Former West Orange-Stark golf standout Michael Arnaud tied for 18th place in last weekend’s Nationwide Tour with a five-under-par to collect $8,100. His finish made him eligible for this week’s Nationwide tournament that will be played somewhere in Canada.
Preakness winner Rachel Alexandra romped to a 19 1/4-length victory Saturday in the Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont Park to set a stakes record 1:46.33 in the 1 1/8-mile race. It was her seventh straight win dating to last year. “Believe me, she’s not normal,” jockey Calvin Borel said in his Cajun accent. “She’s unbelievable.”
If our favored McNeese State Cowboys win the Southland Conference football title this fall and are in the FBS playoffs, there’s a chance they would face big-time quarterback Justin Roper, who started for Oregon last fall but transferred to the University of Montana after he lost his No. 1 status to Jeremiah Masoli. By transferring from a major college program to one in a lower tier of Division I, Roper is eligible to play for Montana this fall.

JUST BETWEEN US…. Although West Orange-Stark Head Coach Dan Hooks has coached 10 Mustangs who played NCAA Division I football and three who played in the National Football League, he has never had anyone recruited any harder by college coaches than senior-to-be James Haynes, who has already received scholarship offers from 13 major football powerhouses, including BCS finalists Florida and Oklahoma. Haynes said that the University of Texas has not yet made an offer.