Exchanging power for pitching, Astros take flight

ON BASEBALL

Baseball

September 02, 2001|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The Houston Astros entered the weekend with a four-game lead over the Chicago Cubs in the National League Central, which should buy them just enough time to finish piecing their strong starting rotation back together for the tough final weeks of the division race.

Right-hander Pedro Astacio just went on the disabled list with a sore shoulder, but the club was heartened to learn that a magnetic resonance imaging test revealed no structural damage. Astacio, who is 2-1 with a 3.14 ERA in four starts since being acquired from the Colorado Rockies, should be back in action in a week or so.

The Astros also hope to have veteran starter Shane Reynolds back from the DL in the next few days. Reynolds has been sidelined with a sore back, but he's been throwing pain-free the past week.

Not that there has been any noticeable downturn in the performance of the Astros' solid staff. The club entered the weekend ranked second in the major leagues in August with a 2.96 combined ERA (behind Arizona's 2.63), thanks largely to the terrific performance of rookie Roy Oswalt (12-2 overall, 2.83 ERA) and recent call-up Carlos Hernandez, who is 1-0 with a 1.02 ERA in his first three major-league starts.

The club is pitching so well, in fact, that the Astros came out of their recent road trip to Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with a 4-2 record even though their vaunted lineup batted a combined .200 for the six games.

"It's a classic case of why pitching wins championships," general manager Gerry Hunsicker said. "Even the best offenses get shut down. If we'd had a week in the first half like we just did, we would have easily been 2-4 or 1-5 on the trip. Pitching has made the difference."

Baseball and earrings

They're still talking about the run-in last weekend between low-key former Orioles reliever Arthur Rhodes and the normally docile Cleveland Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel.

It isn't every day that two teams almost engage in a bench-clearing brawl over a pair of earrings.

"I was blinded," said Vizquel, who asked umpires at Safeco Field to order Rhodes to remove his earrings because the reflection from them was a distraction at the plate.

Rhodes was blinding mad. He initially refused to remove his diamond studs and erupted at Vizquel, bringing players from both clubs onto the field. The umpires eventually got Rhodes to take out the earrings, then ejected him from the game because he wouldn't stop jawing at the Indians' shortstop.

Vizquel couldn't help poking more fun at Rhodes the next day.

"My wife Nicole asked me, `Why don't you get me a pair of earrings that big?' " Vizquel quipped.

The incident sparked countless humorous sportscasts around the country, but veteran Indians infielder Travis Fryman didn't think it was very funny.

"When two teams are going to fight over a pair of earrings, it might be time for me to get out of the game," Fryman said. "That's baseball in the 21st century."

Moose vs. Rocket

Former Orioles ace Mike Mussina has, by some accounts, had a disappointing first season in New York, but ESPN.com's Rob Neyer recently made a statistical argument for Mussina being as effective this year as 17-game winner Roger Clemens.

If you look past his 13-11 record, that just might be the case.

The Rocket may be 17-1, but Mussina entered the weekend with a slightly better ERA (3.55 to 3.56) and only slightly fewer strikeouts (169 to 176). Mussina has allowed one run or fewer in 13 of his 27 starts. Clemens has allowed one or fewer in only seven of his 27 starts.

The difference in their records can be explained more by what happens when the Yankees are at the plate than when either one of them is on the mound. Clemens is getting the best run support in the majors - an average of 7.2 runs per game. Mussina is near the other end of the run-support spectrum with an average of just 4.3 runs per game, which more than explains his struggle to stay above .500.

Of course, after his last few years in Baltimore, the Moose should be used to that by now.

Fast company

When Jason Giambi reached 100 RBIs on Tuesday night at Camden Yards, he became the first player in Oakland A's history to have four consecutive triple-figure RBI seasons.

That might seem surprising, considering the number of big hitters who have played for the A's, but Jose Canseco was the only other Oakland player to do it three times in a row. Mark McGwire never did it in back-to-back seasons with the A's and Reggie Jackson - believe it or not - never had back-to-back 100-RBI seasons in his Hall of Fame career.

That says a lot about Giambi's value going into the free-agent market at the end of the year, but it also says something about the run inflation that has taken place over the past decade.

Wittiest ex-O of the week

Somebody asked former O's infielder Mark McLemore whether he was surprised that Mariners teammate Ichiro Suzuki had reached 200 hits in August.

"I'm not impressed," McLemore said. "Anybody can get 200 hits with Ichiro's swing."

McLemore paused briefly, and then continued the thought.

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