08/08/2003 9:29 PM ET
Notes: Scoreboard gazing
Houston dugout enjoying the suspense
HOUSTON -- The Houston Astros have won four division titles in the last six years and each time the Astros were in contention this late in the year the team they were fighting was the St. Louis Cardinals.
By Jim Molony / MLB.com
This time, however, it's a three-team race for the National League Central Division crown between the Astros, Cardinals and Chicago Cubs.
"I think it's great for the fans, to have this many teams bunched together, it keeps everybody in those cities scoreboard watching," Houston second baseman Craig Biggio said. "I think it's going to come down to the last weekend of the season. I think we're all going to be right there and it will come down to who gets hot at the end."
The Astros, with a largely veteran team, aren't going about this pennant race any differently than they have in the past.
"They're all a grind," Biggio said. "(1998) was different because we went out and got Randy (Johnson) and he went 11-1, so that was exciting and there was kind of a playoff atmosphere. This (year) is more like the others, everybody knows what's at stake, they don't have to be told."
The Astros haven't held any pep talks or closed-door meetings. The clubhouse Friday appeared to be as loose and relaxed as it was in April. Jimy Williams isn't managing any differently just because a division title is up for grabs.
"I don't manage a game any different now than I would in Spring Training," Williams said. "You can't turn it on and off. You have to play every game to win."
Kent returns: Jeff Kent returned to the lineup Friday night after sitting out the last two games as a result of a suspension he received for an incident surrounding his ejection during a game on July 26 against Chicago.
Kent started at second base and hit cleanup between Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman.
The Astros, who are 5-8 in their last 13 games, can use Kent's bat back in the lineup. Not counting an 11-1 victory over the Mets Wednesday night the Astros have scored a total of 12 runs in their last five games entering Friday night's game against Montreal.
"We get Kent back tonight so hopefully that helps us offensively," Houston manager Jimy Williams said. "To me, we have good bats up and down the lineup."
Kent, who is hitting .295 with 14 homers and 55 RBIs for the season, has been the Astros' best hitter at home. He is hitting .338 with a .395 on-base percentage at Minute Maid Park.
Select company: Astros center fielder Biggio recorded his 1,000th career walk during Thursday night's game against the Mets. The base on balls put Biggio in select company, as he joined Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Paul Molitor and Rickey Henderson as the only players in MLB history to record 2,400 hits, 200 homers, 500 doubles, 300 steals and 1,000 career walks.
"It's one of those things, I suppose, that happens when you play long enough," Biggio said. "Seriously, anytime you're mentioned in the same sentence with guys like that, it's special and a nice feeling. I'm proud of it."
Henderson, who signed with Los Angeles last month, and Bonds, are still playing. Molitor retired after the '98 season and thus isn't yet eligible for the Hall of Fame. Those three are certain Hall of Famers and Mays is already enshrined.
Biggio isn't ready to think about the Hall of Fame or dwell on individual accomplishments. He's focused on trying to help this team get back to the playoffs. Still, it was a special achievement.
"Hey, I grew up in a small town on Long Island, so just getting one hit in the Major Leagues was special," Biggio said.
Top prospect: Astros General Manager Gerry Hunsicker owns several thoroughbred racehorses including a stakes winner, but his newest filly has the potential to be his best yet. Hunsicker is partners with Stonerside Stable, owned by Janice and Robert McNair, owner of the Houston Texans of the National Football League, in a two-year-old filly named Snow Star.
As yet unraced, Snow Star is a daughter of Mt. Livermore, a champion thoroughbred stallion who has produced dozens of stakes winners, including two Horses of the Year in Canada (Peaks and Valleys, Housebuster), Breeders' Cup Sprint champion Orientate, Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies champion Eliza and Hollywood Derby winner Subordination, to name a few.
"I'm very excited about her," Hunsicker said. "(Trainer) Mark Casse is handling her development and he is pleased with how she's coming along."
Hunsicker usually names his horses after baseball terms, like Setup Man, for example. So where does Snow Star come from?
"Janice McNair named this one," he explained.
Extra bases: The Astros entered Friday night's game with a record of 61-53 and 1 1/2 games ahead of Chicago in the National League Central. Through 114 games last year the Astros were 60-54 and tied for second place, two games behind St. Louis. ... Shortstop Adam Everett has two hits in his last 21 at-bats and is hitting .163 (8-for-49) since the All-Star break. ... Jeff Bagwell, who tied Duke Snider for 34th place on the all-time home run list with his 407th homer Thursday night, needs seven to tie Darrell Evans for 33rd place. According to Stats, Inc., Bagwell leads the Majors in home runs over the past four weeks (since July 11) with 12, one ahead of Sammy Sosa's 11. ... The Astros face their biggest series of the season when they begin a four-game set against the Cubs at Wrigley Field beginning Monday, but at least the Astros won't have to face Mark Prior. According to the rotation matchups announced Friday that Prior will miss the Houston series. Here's the matchups: Wade Miller (8-10, 4.69) vs. Kerry Wood (11-8, 3.44) on Monday; Tim Redding (8-9, 3.73) vs. Carlos Zambrano (10-8, 3.25) on Tuesday; Jeriome Robertson (10-5, 4.97) vs. Shawn Estes (7-8, 5.70) on Wednesday and Jared Fernandez (1-0, 1.69) vs. Matt Clement (9-9) on Thursday.
Down on the farm: Lexington manager Russ Nixon reached a significant milestone Wednesday night after the Legends defeated Charleston, S.C. The victory was the 1,000th of Nixon's managerial career. Nixon managed the Cincinnati Reds during 1982-83 and the Atlanta Braves during 1988-90, compiling a combined record of 231-347.
Softball tour in town: The Astros will host Softball Night at Minute Maid Park Saturday night. Members of the National Pro Fastpitch (NPF) All-Star Tour will spend the day at the ballpark, holding a clinic for youth softball players, a private meet and greet with area softball players, and a public autograph session for Astros fans.
From 9-11 a.m. CT the Astros and NPF will conduct a clinic for eight teams of girls softball players from all over the country and Puerto Rico who are participating in the 11th Annual Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) World Series. The clinic will be given by six players from the new National Pro Fastpitch league, in which there will be a Houston franchise in 2004.
The RBI World Series, hosted by the Astros, runs until Aug. 13 at ballparks around the Houston area. RBI, sponsored by Major League Baseball, is a youth outreach program designed to promote interest in baseball and softball, increase the self-esteem of disadvantaged children and encourage kids to stay in school and stay off the streets. The Girls Softball RBI World Series Championship Game will be held at Baseball USA at 10 a.m. on August 13.
From 2 p.m. until 3:45 p.m., the Astros and NPF are hosting a private meet and greet at Minute Maid Park with selected girls softball players from the Houston area. Six NPF players will take part in the meet and greet. From there, the NPF players will move to the lobby of Union Station at the corner of Texas and Crawford for a public autograph session with fans from 4-5 p.m. Fans are welcome to meet with the players and get free autographs.
The Astros will recognize the Flatonia High School softball team that won the Texas Class A State Championship before Saturday night's 6:05 p.m. game between the Astros and the Montreal Expos. The captains from the eight Girls Softball RBI World Series teams will represent their teams on the field for a special salute. Pro all-star pitcher Amy Kyler and catcher Lindsey Collins, part of the NPF All-Star Tour, will then throw out and catch a ceremonial softball first pitch.
Jim Molony is a writer for MLB.com based in Houston. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.