Another second-place finish in the NL Central may not be good enough to get the Houston Astros back into the playoffs. The Pittsburgh Pirates are looking to finish anywhere but the bottom half of the division again.
The Astros open play Monday night at home against a Pirates team that’s coming off its 14th straight losing season.
Houston has finished second to St. Louis in the Central the last three years. The Astros made the playoffs as a wild card in 2004 and again in ’05 as they reached their first World Series, but second place didn’t get them to the postseason in 2006, as they finished 1 1/2 games behind the eventual world champion Cardinals.
St. Louis is expected to be strong again and Chicago hired Lou Piniella as manager and signed Alfonso Soriano, so Houston will likely need to improve on last season’s 82-80 record to contend in the division.
Andy Pettitte left via free agency and Roger Clemens still hasn’t decided if he will return this season, but the Astros still have ace Roy Oswalt (15-8, 2.98 ERA), who will match up with Pittsburgh’s Zach Duke (10-15, 4.47 ERA) on Monday.
Houston also bolstered its lineup with the addition of outfielder Carlos Lee, who signed a $100 million, six-year contract. The 30-year-old Lee, who hit 37 homers with 116 RBIs with Milwaukee and Texas last season, should complement All-Star first baseman Lance Berkman, who had 45 homers and 136 RBIs.
“To me he’s one of the best natural hitters in the game,” Astros general manager Tim Purpura said of Berkman. “He’s a professional hitter. He and Lee, these guys can get out bed in the morning and hit. It’s a rarity.”
Craig Biggio, 41, is beginning his 20th season with Houston needing only 70 hits to become the 27th player to reach 3,000. That would likely secure him a spot in the Hall of Fame.
“It’s not even the numbers any more,” said Biggio, who hit .246 with 21 home runs, 62 RBIs and a career-low three stolen bases last season. “It’s the clientele you’re having your name associated with in certain categories. That is overwhelming.”
Oswalt will start his fifth straight season opener. The right-hander signed a five-year, $73 million extension in August that will keep him under Houston’s control through 2011.
Oswalt has won his last four starts against Pittsburgh, including three last season, posting a 1.73 ERA in that span.
Duke, meanwhile, regressed last season after a strong rookie year in 2005 (8-2, 1.81 ERA). The 23-year-old left-hander, the leader of one of the majors’ youngest pitching staffs, is 0-3 with a 5.56 ERA in four starts against the Astros.
Pittsburgh needs Duke to become a dependable starter as it tries to improve on last season’s 67-95 record and fifth-place finish. The Pirates have ended up in the bottom half of the six-team division in each of the last seven years.
“I think we have by far the best offensive team we’ve had,” said Bay, who had 35 home runs, 109 RBIs and 101 runs last season. “We’ve still got to go out and do it. But what I’ve seen …”
LaRoche will be in the middle of an underrated batting order, following shortstop Jack Wilson and NL batting champion Freddy Sanchez and preceding Bay. LaRoche gives Pittsburgh the left-handed power hitter it has lacked since Brian Giles was dealt to San Diego in 2003 for Bay.
LaRoche, who had 32 homers and 90 RBIs last season, knows what it’s like to play for a winner after spending the first three years of his career with the Braves.
“They want to win, but I think nobody’s real sure how to do it,” LaRoche said of his new teammates.
Sanchez also is a key. Nobody expected him to have highest batting average (.344) by a Pirates player since Roberto Clemente’s .345 in 1969, especially after not becoming a starter until a month into the season.
Sanchez, though, will miss at least the first four games after being placed on the 15-day disabled list Saturday with a sprained knee ligament.
The Astros went 13-3 against the Pirates last season, winning the last six matchups and all six games played in Houston.