The Houston Astros have been one of the NL’s hottest teams lately, while the Cincinnati Reds have been the league’s worst. Recent developments on the injury front, however, could close that gap considerably.
After losing Carlos Lee to a broken left pinkie finger, the Astros hope to overcome the hot-hitting outfielder’s absence Sunday when they close a four-game road series against the Reds, who will welcome ace Aaron Harang back from the disabled list.
Since falling into last place in the NL Central on July 23, Houston (57-59) has won 11 of 15 games to pull into the outskirts of contention in the NL wild-card race. The Astros are in sixth place, trailing first-place Milwaukee by 8 1-2 games.
Lee has been a major factor in Houston’s surge, leading the majors with a .390 batting average since June 20 and batting .500 (15-for-30) with four homers and 13 RBIs in nine August games.
Lee, however, won’t get a chance to continue his hot streak anytime soon. He left Saturday night’s 3-1 win over Cincinnati with a broken left pinkie after getting hit by a pitch from Reds starter Bronson Arroyo in the third inning, and is expected to miss 6-to-8 weeks.
“It’s tough to lose him,” Astros manager Cecil Cooper said of Lee, the NL leader with 100 RBIs. “It didn’t look good. He carried us the last month-and-a-half. It’s a big hole to fill, but we’re capable of filling it. I’m just now starting to suck it up.”
Making matters worse for the Astros is the news that Harang (3-11, 4.76 ERA) will start Sunday’s finale for the Reds (52-66). The right-hander has won at least 10 games in each of the last four seasons, including back-to-back 16-win campaigns in 2006 and 2007. He’s struggled this year, but told the Reds’ official Web site that he’s eager to return after almost a month on the disabled list with a strained right forearm.
“Everybody says it’s fine for a while to get a couple of days off,” Harang said. “But once you’ve got to come to the field every day, being around the guys and not being able to go out there and help, it eventually gets to you.”
Since placing Harang on the DL on July 13, Cincinnati has lost 17 of 23 games, including five straight and the first three of this series. The Reds have dropped seven of eight against the Astros this year and 11 of 12 against them dating to last May.
“If we want to win, we need Harang back in the rotation,” starting pitcher Edinson Volquez said.
Harang has won his last six decisions against the Astros, posting a 3.00 ERA in that seven-start stretch. He’s 8-5 with a 3.99 ERA in 17 career starts against Houston.
Astros first baseman Lance Berkman, a career .365 hitter at Great American Ball Park, is tied for the most career home runs against Harang with five, but he’s batting just .237 (9-for-38) with eight strikeouts against him.
Wandy Rodriguez (6-4, 3.98) gets the start for the Astros on Sunday. The left-hander opened the second half strong, holding opponents to two runs and 12 hits while striking out 14 in 12 2-3 innings spanning his first two starts - both victories. In his last two outings, however, he’s been tagged for 12 runs in 9 2-3 innings. He gave up six runs in five innings of the Astros’ 11-7 loss to the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday.
In eight career starts against the Reds, Rodriguez is 2-3 with a 6.26 ERA. He’s 1-0 with a 4.82 ERA in three starts at Great American Ball Park - all Astros victories.