Astros offense quietly getting it done
No big names, but Houston hitters delivering in key spots
HOUSTON -- Normally, you wouldn't expect to have a cleanup hitter taking a victory lap around the clubhouse after going 0-for-2 with a pair of walks, but Morgan Ensberg isn't a typical slugger. And this Houston offense isn't your typical offense.
Houston's Little Offense That Couldn't has become an offense that seems to do everything it needs to do to win since the postseason began.
After getting shut out 17 times this season and ranking 28th out of the 30 Major League teams with an average of 4.24 runs per game, the Astros have scored 36 runs in seven postseason games, or 5.14 per game. The runs are second-most by any team since the playoffs began, trailing only the White Sox, who eclipsed the mark during Game 4 of the American League Championship Series, and Houston's .290 team batting average easily tops any of the teams still playing.
What in the name of Cesar Cedeno is going on here?
"I think that teams, in general, underestimate our team, because we really don't have those big names in the lineup that are playing now," Ensberg said. "Obviously, you've got Bidge [Craig Biggio] in there and so forth, but we just don't have those marquee-type players. So nobody knows us, so they just think that we're some bunch of guys out there that are kind of throwing the bat at the ball, and in reality, we actually are. So they're right, we're out there doing whatever."
Whatever it is, it is working.
With their 4-3 victory over Matt Morris and St. Louis in Game 3 of the NLCS on Saturday afternoon at Minute Maid Park, the Astros are continuing their postseason penchant for proving their offense isn't as poor as some people believed.
The Astros banged out 11 hits -- giving them 70 in seven postseason games -- and every starter except Ensberg had at least one base hit.
"Obviously, we had our tough times earlier in the season, but I think we've got a lot of guys that are fighting and grinding," rookie Chris Burke said. "We're throwing good at-bats up there up and down the order, and that's huge for us.
"I feel like everybody is kind of locked in in battle mode. If you throw quality at-bats out there, you're going to get on base and score some runs."
The offense once again made gambler Phil Garner look good. The manager surprised some observers -- including this one -- by starting Burke in center field in place of Willy Taveras. Burke has been hot, but he's not a center fielder, and the Cardinals briefly capitalized on that decision by sending Albert Pujols to third on a Jim Edmonds single in the sixth.
Had Taveras, who had 10 outfield assists during the regular season, been in center, Pujols probably stops at second. Or maybe Taveras guns him down at third. What did happen was Pujols made it to third well ahead of Burke's throw and subsequently scored the tying run on a sacrifice fly by Larry Walker.
That wasn't as costly for the Astros as it might have been, thanks to their scrappy offense. Mike Lamb shanked a two-run shot to the Crawford boxes in left field to give the Astros a 2-0 lead in the fourth, and he doubled and scored on Jason Lane's single in the sixth to put the Astros ahead to stay.
Considering their regular season woes, a case could be made that the Astros offense is peaking at the best possible time.
"I don't know, that's maybe that for you guys [in the media] to look at and say," Ensberg said. "I think maybe one good thing is that we've been getting a lot of guys on base. There's been a lot more opportunities for guys to score. We're doing a pretty good job offensively."
Lamb agreed with the notion that teams underestimate Houston's offensive attack.
"I mean, don't think this offense can be figured out," Lamb said. "We've been shut out by so many teams, and yet here we are. It doesn't make any sense.
"Our batting average as a team probably isn't very good. To a certain extent, that really doesn't matter, the hits that matter are with runners on base and in scoring position, that kind of thing. We've done reasonably well in those situations."
When the Astros haven't done well, they don't dwell on it. They forget it and move on. It is a character trait that has served them well in this, the most pressure-packed time of the year.
"You know how we are," Burke said. "We have a bad day, we forget about it. This may be the loosest clubhouse you'll ever see, and I mean that in a good way."
On that point, Exhibit A was Ensberg's celebration with Lane. It had nothing to do with the ballgame; the two University of Southern California Trojans football fans were simply celebrating their beloved Trojans' victory over Notre Dame, alma mater of Astros closer Brad Lidge.
That trio were glued to the television set moments after Lidge had finished off the Cardinals, watching the conclusion of the USC-Notre Dame Game as Lamb was getting grilled by the media on the other side of the clubhouse.
"Was there a baseball game?" Ensberg cracked. "I don't know if you want to characterize it as a bad thing. We know what we need to do to be ready for a game. But I'm telling you right now, there are heated college football battles in this clubhouse, and I don't think the public knows what's going on."
Lamb laughed and shrugged when asked about it.
"Last week we were running [pass] routes before the [NLDS] game against Atlanta," Lamb said. "Today, right before intros, we were watching USC score [its] first touchdown. The joke was, 'By the way, we've got a game today.' It's the most resilient team I've ever been on. Whatever happens one day, we're always loose the next."
A good thing, too, because another somewhat important day looms Sunday, and Ensberg wanted to make sure everyone is informed.
"Brad's got to wear my USC football jersey tomorrow during his interviews," Ensberg said. "So make sure you guys interview him."
Jim Molony is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.