HOUSTON -- When the Astros finished a miserable 2-5 road trip through Southern California to end the first half of the season at 44-44, no one could have guessed they were one month away from staging an improbable and stunning turnaround that would jettison them to the top of the Wild Card standings.
On Aug. 15, the Astros avoided a sweep at the hands of the struggling Montreal Expos with a three-run ninth to win, 5-4. From there, they went 36-10 to finish the season, taking the Wild Card race down to the very last game.
After a series sweep over the Colorado Rockies, the Astros edged the competition to win their first-ever National League Wild Card title.
Until Sunday, the Astros, on paper, appeared to be at a severe disadvantage. They were planning to use their two aces, Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt, to close out the Rockies series, which would have left them a little thin as they prepared to face the Atlanta Braves in the Division Series.
But in a strange twist of events, Clemens is now the Game 1 starter. He came down with a stomach virus and couldn't pitch that final game with Colorado, making him available for the postseason opener on Wednesday.
"The way our season's going, we certainly couldn't expect to get through the last day without a glitch, and Roger comes up sick," general manager Gerry Hunsicker said. "What does it do? It puts us in the playoffs and sets us up with the rotation the way we would like it to be. It's unexplainable, but this is a year we'll never forget."
The Astros seem to be carrying with them a season's worth of energy in just a couple of weeks. For three months -- from mid-May to mid-August -- the only place the Astros seemed headed was to the couch, where they would watch eight other teams play in the postseason. The offense was cold, they lost two starters in Andy Pettitte and Wade Miller, and their bullpen couldn't hold a lead, whether it was one run or five.
But that all changed when they moved to within four games of the Wild Card lead by taking three of four against the Cubs at Wrigley Field toward the end of August. That began a franchise-record 12-game winning streak, fortified by a number of elements -- an explosion at the plate, clutch pitching performances by a supporting cast of starters to compliment Oswalt and Clemens, and a brand new bullpen.
Well, maybe not brand new, but certainly a revamped one. And that revival may be the key to the Astros' success in October.
The trio of Chad Qualls, Dan Miceli and Brad Lidge at the back end of the bullpen emerged as one nearly as effective as the Lidge-Octavio Dotel-Billy Wagner corps from one year ago. Qualls was recalled from Triple-A in mid-August when the Astros had run out of answers as to why the bullpen was so bad. But within weeks, the young right-hander skyrocketed up the depth chart as manager Phil Garner's most reliable seventh-inning man.
This took the pressure off the rotation and gave Garner confidence that he could pull a starter from a shaky outing early and still have firm control of the game.
The new bullpen trio may even have a leg up on last year's crew, because unlike 2003, these bullpen "enders" are a relatively new fraternity, considering Qualls just got to Houston seven weeks ago. Not only are they not tired, but they just now may be reaching their peak. Their timing couldn't be more impeccable.
"I'm sure to spectators it seems really improbable to see us go where we are right now," Lidge said of the Astros' surge.
"But most of us on this team knew that we were definitely capable of this," he said. "I don't think we're surprised at the way we're playing right now. It took a little longer than we wanted, but better late than never."
Brad Lidge / P
Weight: 210 lbs
Bats: R / Throws: R
Now the Astros will have to continue what they have successfully started in the final stages of the regular season: win with only two proven starting pitchers and an offense that runs hot to cold faster than Ichiro Suzuki runs to first base.
"This is a made-for-TV movie," Hunsicker said. "You can't explain why we played so poorly for three months. You can't explain the streak we're in. Just think of the home situation. We have never had good fortune here at home since we opened this ballpark. It's never given us a home-field advantage. All of a sudden we have an unprecendented 18 home wins in a row. It's magic. There's magic in the air."
And with Clemens at the helm, the Astros like their chances.
"There's only eight teams," Clemens said. "At one point, it looked like we weren't invited, and now it likes like we might just kind of drop in on everybody."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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