Astros buoyed by history of rebounds
Struggling club encouraged by playoff runs of 2004 and '05
They've been here before.
As the Astros head into June on the heels of an 11-15 May, the scuffling team conjures up memories of 2004, when Houston sat 20 1/2 games back on August 22. Or perhaps this year's slow start is more equatable to the 2005 squad, which went 19-32 out of the gate.
Both of those Astros teams dug themselves out of the hole -- posting respective runs of 36-10 and 74-33 -- to punch a playoff ticket in the seasons' final days.
And while this year's beleaguered squad has been beset with injury and has underperformed, the Astros aren't counting on their history of second-half surges to guarantee October baseball.
"You don't want to ever rely on that; every year it's a new team," Hunter Pence said. "We've just got to pick it up right now.
"We know we're better than where we're at, it's just a matter of continuing to prepare and continuing to come to the ballpark ready to play. Baseball is a funny game. It can change in an instant."
Things have already changed for the better.
Buoyed by a pair of strong pitching performances, the Astros took two of three games in Pittsburgh for their first series win since taking two out of three in Colorado on May 12-14. Houston snapped a season-high seven-game losing streak with Friday's win, and besides picking up ground in the National League Central, the weekend series could be a much-needed shot in the arm for the team's confidence.
The Astros will open a 10-game homestand on Monday with their first seven scheduled against the Rockies and Pirates, two squads they have gone a combined 6-3 against with three series wins.
"At this point, whether it's a long homestand or not, whether it's at home or on the road, we understand it's time to start winning games," Lance Berkman said.
And there is no better time to put their 20-28 start behind them.
"Right now, we're against a wall. We don't want to keep losing games the way we've lost them," Miguel Tejada said. "Think of it [like] the season starts June 1. That's what we've got to start doing from the first game [Monday], and make a fresh start."
It starts, as the old baseball adage goes, with starting pitching. Perhaps no Astros arm needs a blank slate more than ace Roy Oswalt, who has a 4.62 ERA over his first 10 starts and is still looking for his second win. Oswalt will be tasked Monday with helping to improve a 9-15 home record, which has the team trailing only Arizona and Washington for the most home losses in the League.
"It helps," Oswalt said of starting a turnaround in the comfortable confines of Minute Maid Park. "It helps to get something going there, and then you can carry it on to a road trip."
In the past, the calendar flip to June has been one Oswalt has relished. In 40 starts in the month, he is a career 21-10 with a 3.18 ERA, compared to May's 15-17 career mark over 45 games with a 3.63 ERA.
If Oswalt starts to heat up and Wandy Rodriguez returns to early-season form after a pair of tough outings, June could be a very encouraging month for the Astros' arms.
Wednesday starter Brian Moehler is fresh off pitching the team's first complete game this season, and is 2-1 with a 3.90 ERA since being reinstated from the disabled list on May 4. Mike Hampton was equally dominant in his last start, allowing the Pirates a solo homer and nothing else over seven innings in Sunday's win.
"I said, 'You know what? That's over with. Let's just make quality pitches and get a quality start and finish where that leaves you,'" Hampton told reporters in Pittsburgh of his mindset after the game-opening homer. "I've been struggling lately, so I just needed a good start. I know we needed a win, but I just needed a good start."
The same can be said for the Astros, who recognize how important the looming homestand is in establishing resiliency and momentum.
"We're a team where if we get back to .500, we always start playing a lot better after the All-Star break," Oswalt said. "And I think we'll be OK if we can get back to square."
If the rotation can find some consistency, the Astros' bats will be critical in getting the club back on the right side of the win column.
The red-hot Tejada has a 14-game hitting streak, and with Kazuo Matsui on the DL, Edward Maysonet and his .450 average (9-for-20) could help spark some offensive firepower. Houston has only scored 31 runs in its past 10 games, but the club has seven players hitting over .280, and it is fresh off a franchise-record team batting average in the month of May.
Simply put, Monday's homestand could be Houston's best chance to come together and flip the switch on a lackluster season.
"It always is that time [to take off as a team]," Pence said. "You don't ever want to go through these rough times. Every day is a big day, [and] you really take it that way. "
And if the Astros' history is indicative of anything, it is the team's innate ability to methodically grind out wins down the stretch.
"The biggest thing for us is just to win series," Oswalt said. "You've got to put series wins together. You can't go in and sweep everybody, but if you keep winning series, you'll catch up pretty quick."
Brittany Ghiroli is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.