History of surges bodes well for Astros
Strong second halves have defined team's past decade
HOUSTON -- They lurk in the shadows of the playoff favorites, content to let others get the early-season accolades and attention. They don't panic during a losing streak or give up when it seems as if it would take nothing short of a miracle for them to be part of the pennant race.
When the days get longer and the summer heats up, the Astros inevitably heat up as well. They overcame poor starts in both 2004 and 2005 to make the playoffs, and made strong pushes for the postseason in 2006 and 2008 with improbable second-half surges.
With a little more than two months remaining in the regular season, Houston has put itself in contention in the jumbled National League Central by going 31-18 since it was a season-worst 10 games under .500 (19-29) on May 30. The Astros began play on Sunday 1 1/2 games behind the first-place Cardinals, having trimmed 7 1/2 games off the lead during that span.
"It's not how you start, but how you finish," pitcher Roy Oswalt said. "Everybody knows that here. As long as you can stay close and start pushing at the end, you have a chance."
In 12 seasons since 1997, the Astros have posted a better winning percentage after the All-Star break than in the first half, including a winning record in the second half of 11 of those 12 seasons.
Oswalt and first baseman Lance Berkman are the only players still on the roster who have been around for all of the Astros' second-half surges since 2004. Oswalt, Berkman and pitcher Wandy Rodriguez are the only holdovers from the 2005 World Series team.
"Having done it in the past gives you a lot of confidence it's going to happen again," Berkman said. "You don't want to rely on that, but by the same token we've done it, so we know that's kind of what happens here. It kind of becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You know that we are going to play better, and we do."
Oswalt and Berkman, who's currently on the disabled list with a strained left calf, have been perhaps the keys to this year's turnaround.
Oswalt won only one of his first 11 starts but is 3-0 with a 2.00 ERA in six starts since June 24. Berkman hit .162 in April with five homers and 10 RBIs, but returned to form by hitting .309 with eight homers and 45 RBIs since May 1. Berkman went on the disabled list July 22.
"I like the surge, but I don't necessarily like what leads up to it," general manager Ed Wade said. "It's not really a good formula for success to get off to slow starts. From what I've seen out of both clubs last year and this year is their ability to show up, prepare and play, and not get hung up on where we are in the standings."
The veteran leadership, Oswalt says, has been the key throughout. It was up to established players like Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Brad Ausmus to keep the team from panicking in years past, and that's a torch Berkman and Oswalt now carry.
"Guys that have young teams, they get seven, eight games out and they think it's over," Oswalt said. "All you have to do is have one good run and get right back in it. I think the next two months, it will come down to the last two weeks like it always does."
In 2004, the Astros were loaded. They signed Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte prior to the season and made a blockbuster trade for center fielder Carlos Beltran in late June. Jeff Kent, Bagwell and Biggio were playing at high levels, along with a young Berkman.
But the club was struggling at 44-44 at the All-Star break, costing manager Jimy Williams his job. Phil Garner took over at the break, and the Astros took off beginning in mid-August, going 36-10 down the stretch to win the NL Wild Card on the final day of the season.
Of all the second-half success stories, 2006 is the favorite of both Oswalt and Berkman.
"We had the pitching so you knew we were going to be in every ballgame," Oswalt said. "Games we were losing were by one or two runs. We weren't losing badly. It was just a matter of time before everybody got on a run."
Even though the Astros lost Beltran to free agency before the 2005 season, they still had high expectations, but were 15-30 through the first two months. Houston regrouped to post the best record in baseball after June 1 and again clinched the Wild Card on the season's final day.
The Astros haven't made the playoffs since reaching the World Series in that 2005 season, but came close to reaching the playoffs in 2006 and 2008 with second-half rallies.
In 2006, Houston won nine in a row in September to trim St. Louis' division lead by eight games to one-half game, but was eliminated in the final weekend of the season. The Astros posted the best record in the NL last year after the break and were eliminated in the 159th game of the season.
"The teams I've been on that have put together those second-half runs have been teams that have had a lot of talent on paper," Berkman said. "We haven't played as well in the first half for whatever reason, so you know in the second half you're going to make it up."
Houston was 41-50 on July 8 of last year and in last place in the NL Central, 13 1/2 games out of first. They went 45-25 in their final 70 games, including a 14-1 spurt from late August through early September that cut their deficit in the Wild Card race from 11 games to two.
Any momentum the Astros had was zapped, though, when Hurricane Ike forced them to move two home games against the Cubs to Milwaukee, where they were held to one hit in two games.
Outfielder Hunter Pence got his first taste of the Astros' second-half success last year, but it didn't take him by surprise.
"I was definitely aware because coming up through the Minors, you're watching the big league club and seeing how they do, and when I got here, there were so many veteran guys like Ausmus and Biggio," Pence said. "They always had this calmness and assured us we were going to come through. It's a long season. I didn't realize it until my second year , when we made the surge, how it works. It all of a sudden clicks."
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.