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Series Preview and Discussion: Phillies at Astros, July 25-27

July 25, 8:05pm: Cory Lidle (8-8, 4.45) vs. Andy Pettitte (7-7, 2.82)
July 26, 8:05pm: Jon Lieber (9-9, 4.88) vs. Roy Oswalt (13-8, 2.41)
July 27, 8:05pm: Vicente Padilla (5-8, 5.71) vs. Roger Clemens (8-4, 1.40)

Recent History/Overview
When the Phillies and Astros met up for the first time last season on August 17 at Citizens Bank Park, Houston had just dropped eight of their last eleven games and looked dead to rights in the NL wild-card race with a 57-60 record. The two teams played six times in the following nine days; the Astros won all six, kick-starting the 35-10 run that eventually lifted them into the playoffs and one win shy of the World Series. For their part, the Phils left Houston on August 25 at 62-65; though they too played much better ball down the stretch, going 24-11 the rest of the way, the hole was too deep and the team finished six games behind Houston for the wild-card. A split of the season series would have left both teams tied with 89 wins.

A year later, both teams have overcome disappointing starts and once again find themselves very much in the playoff hunt. Led by the league's best 1-2-3 rotation punch--Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt, and Andy Pettitte, all of whom the Phils will see this week--Houston has rebounded from losing 30 of its first 45 games to move within a few games of the wild-card lead.

The Astros have struggled against the NL East this season, losing 12 of 18, while the Phillies have fared well versus the NL Central with a 14-9 mark. Houston's 30-14 home record is the best in baseball this season; the Phillies, coming off a stretch of 35 home dates in their last 48 games capped by a 9-4 homestand, return to the road with a 19-25 mark.

The Astros are the lone NL opponent the Phils have yet to face in 2005.

Astros Starters
C Brad Ausmus
1B Lance Berkman
2B Craig Biggio
3B Morgan Ensberg
SS Adam Everett
LF Chris Burke
CF Willy Taveras
RF Jason Lane

Strengths and Weaknesses
Though Houston's Minute Maid Park is considered hitter-friendly (2004 Park Factor: 1.015) and the Astros have generally won with offense in their five playoff appearances over the past eight seasons, this year's club has a distinctly different approach. Gone from the 2004 club are all-stars Carlos Beltran and Jeff Kent; future Hall of Famers Jeff Bagwell, who's out for the season, and Craig Biggio are near the end of the line, and slugging outfielder Lance Berkman missed more than a month at the beginning of the season and has only 9 home runs for the year thus far. Third baseman Morgan Ensberg has been the savior of Houston's offense, putting up a .294 average with 26 home runs (t-4th in the NL) and 74 RBI. His .389 on-base percentage and .596 slugging percentage are both way above his career averages, and Ensberg's .986 OPS is 4th in the league. Even so, the Astros rank 12th in the NL in runs scored with 423; 10th in home runs with 89; and 14th in on-base percentage at .323.

The pitching is a very different story. Houston's 3.70 ERA ranks second in the league, behind only St. Louis, and the team's strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.6 is the league's best. Astros pitchers have allowed opponents to hit just .251 with an OPS of .707, both second-best in the NL (by comparison, Phils hurlers have posted a composite 4.51 ERA, with opposition hitters batting .261 with a .774 OPS--though, as this diary notes, those numbers are dramatically better away from CBP). In addition to the three rotation stalwarts (see below), the Astros have one of baseball's better setup/closer relief duos in Dan Wheeler (1.73 ERA, 43/10 K/BB ratio) and Brad Lidge (2.70, 22 saves, 13.7 strikeouts per 9 IP).

Since June 17, Pettitte, Oswalt and Clemens are a combined 14-2; for the year, they boast the seventh-lowest, third-lowest and lowest ERAs respectively in the league.

Head to Head
A look at how this week's starters and key offensive players have fared against the opposition through their major league careers:

Bobby Abreu: 45-154 (.292), 8 HR, 36 RBI, 10 SB; .421 OBP, .539 SLG, .959 OPS
Pat Burrell: 16-69 (.232), 4 HR, 12 RBI; .345 OBP, .522 SLG, .867 OPS
Mike Lieberthal: 32-173 (.185), 4 HR, 19 RBI; .242 OBP, .289 SLG, .531 OPS

Cory Lidle: 1-1, 5.57; 32.1 IP, 8 BB, 21 K
Jon Lieber: 7-8, 3.56; 131.1 IP, 31 BB, 106 K
Vicente Padilla: 0-3, 5.31; 20.1 IP, 9 BB, 14 K

Lance Berkman: 28-102 (.275), 3 HR, 26 RBI; .390 OBP, .461 SLG, .851 OPS
Craig Biggio: 164-562 (.292), 13 HR, 59 RBI, 30 SB; .391 OBP, .445 SLG, .836 OPS
Morgan Ensberg: 12-41 (.293), 1 HR, 7 RBI; .383 OBP, .488 SLG, .871 OPS

Andy Pettitte: 0-2, 6.32; 15.2 IP, 5 BB, 7 K
Roy Oswalt: 2-1, 1.72; 15.2 IP, 5 BB, 17 K
Roger Clemens: 1-0, 5.40; 10.1 IP, 4 BB, 11 K