Astros emboldened by '05 turnaround

Astros emboldened by '05 turnaround

HOUSTON -- There are striking similarities and huge differences, which makes it all the more difficult to ascertain whether the current Astros are capable of making the dramatic turnaround over the final four months of the season that the 2005 team did.

Five years after the Astros rallied from a 15-30 start to become the first team since the 1914 Boston Braves to make the playoffs after being 15 games under .500, they sit in a similar spot. At 15-29, they have the worst record in the National League and have several high-profile stars underachieving.

The incredible run of the 2005 team -- which advanced to the World Series for the only time in club history -- gives this year's players some hope, but the reality is these Astros don't have the track record of the players on that magical team from five years ago.

"I think there are some comparisons in that, just like that year, this year's roster is a lot more talented than the record would indicate," said Astros first baseman Lance Berkman, who along with Roy Oswalt and Wandy Rodriguez are the only three remaining players from the World Series team. "At that time, we weren't thinking we were going to make a World Series appearance, but we looked around at who we had and we thought, 'There's no way we're this bad.' This is similar because it's the same thing. I look around and think there's just no way we're this bad. In that way, we're similar."

Similar in some ways, different in so many others.

The 2005 team was coming off a season in which they came within a game of reaching the World Series. It had established stars in Craig Biggio and Lance Berkman and up-and-comers in Morgan Ensberg, Jason Lane and Willy Taveras. But the Astros also had three aces up their sleeve: Oswalt, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte.

Those three pitchers combined to go 50-29 with a 2.43 ERA to mask an offense that was 12th in the league in runs scored and 14th in on-base percentage. Oswalt won 20 games, Clemens led the league in ERA and Pettitte was the best pitcher in baseball after June 1.


"We haven't swung the bats like we have hoped or thought we were capable of, and we think that's going to come around as well."
-- Astros manager
Brad Mills

With Oswalt, Rodriguez and Brett Myers at the top of the rotation this year, the Astros have a nice 1-2-3 combination, but it's not nearly as good as 2005.

"I think the offense is nearly identical," Berkman said. "But even when we got it going a little bit, we were never a great offensive team [in 2005]. I don't know that we'll suddenly morph into an offensive juggernaut, but I do think we can be better off just by the virtue that Carlos [Lee] isn't going to hit .200 all year, and I'm not going to hit .230 all year. We're going to get better performances out of guys going forward than we have the first month and a half of the season."

Like 2005, the Astros' offensive struggles are the reason they are in last place at this point in the season. Houston ranks last in the NL in several offensive categories, in large part because Lee (.196), Berkman (.233) and Hunter Pence (.250) have gotten off to slow starts.

Berkman, just as he did this year, missed the first part of the 2005 season because of knee surgery, but wound up hitting .293 with 24 homers and 82 RBIs. Biggio (26 homers), Morgan Ensberg (36 homers, 101 RBIs) and Lane (26 homers) led the offensive punch.

The Astros went 74-43 following their 15-30 start in 2005 and clinched the NL Wild Card on the final day of the regular season by beating the Cubs. Astros president of baseball operations Tal Smith understands what a rare accomplishment that was.

"It would be nice if we could replicate that, but a lot of things really have to go right for that to happen," Smith said. "Baseball is a streaky game, and so many games are determined by a margin of one or two runs. Our offense is going to have to be more productive than it has been. Whether I think it can or whether it will is another question. It would be nice. The starting pitching and the bullpen have been certainly pretty good. We just have to score more runs."

Brad Mills, who like Phil Garner in 2005 is in his first full season as Houston's manager, wasn't with the club in '05 and said comparing teams from different years can be tricky.

"Any time you start comparing to things like that in the past, I think you start getting in trouble a little bit as well," he said. "We have to play the best we can with who we have right here and go from there. I think there are a lot of good things. We've talked about the pitching. Any time you have some good pitching you can put it in place.

"We haven't swung the bats like we have hoped or thought we were capable of, and we think that's going to come around as well. You put those factors together and there's a good opportunity things are going to be getting a lot better."

Just how much better remains to be seen. Berkman knows the window of opportunity to win with the Astros is closing, especially since the team said last week that Oswalt had asked to be traded to a contender. Of course, who would have imagined at this point five years ago the Astros were themselves contenders?

"The one thing [owner] Drayton [McLane] has shown in the past is tremendous patience," Berkman said. "He's not somebody that's going to make a hasty decision and blow the whole roster up. I'm not saying they're not going to do that at some point, but they're going to give this team every opportunity to be successful before they go in that direction."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.