Originally created 06/17/04

Astros drop further behind in NL Central race



HOUSTON -- The boos were getting louder and harder to ignore.

The Astros heard them as they went inning after inning without scoring. Octavio Dotel heard them as he walked slowly off the mound following another blown save. Morgan Ensberg heard them as he grounded out to put the finishing touches on another frustrating loss.

The Astros dropped into fifth place in the NL Central - albeit at 33-30 and only 3 1/2 games out - after Lance Berkman's fielding error and Dotel's third blown save allowed the Chicago Cubs to rally for a 4-2 victory Tuesday night.

"It's a real tough loss because of the way we've been playing," Dotel said. "We need to win."

The Astros have lost 19 of 31 games over the past month, a surprising tailspin for a team that was a preseason favorite to go to the World Series and was tops in the division for the first month and a half of the season.

Since then, Houston has struggled with injuries to key starters, a spotty offense and disappointing performances from its star-studded pitching rotation in its descent.

Things have gotten so bad that some of the Astros' veterans called a team meeting immediately after Tuesday night's loss.

"We certainly expect more out of ourselves than what we're giving lately," Berkman said. "I think the talent is still here. It's always frustrating when you feel like you're not living up to your ability."

The offseason additions of star pitchers Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, teammates for the AL champion New York Yankees, were supposed to enough to get the Astros to the World Series for the first time in the franchise's 42-year history.

Instead, those two haven't been nearly enough to make much of a difference. The Astros were 36-27 at this point last year.

Clemens has been better than advertised, especially for a 41-year-old guy who had to be lured out of a 78-day "retirement."

The Rocket is tied for the NL lead with nine wins, second with 94 strikeouts and third with a 2.46 ERA. He's also been the same power pitcher he was with Boston, Toronto and the Yankees - his fastballs still clock in the 94- and 95-mph range late in games.

Fans have returned to Minute Maid Park in droves to see him, too. The Astros already have had 10 sellouts this season, four more than all of last year. Five of those sellouts have come when Clemens, a Houston native, was on the mound.

Houston hasn't been nearly as good on the other nights.

The Astros' four other starters - Pettitte, Roy Oswalt, Wade Miller and Tim Redding - have combined for only 17 wins in their 43 starts.

Pettitte (4-1, 3.38 ERA) has struggled with injuries to his left arm all season, and is now finishing up his second stint on the DL with a strained forearm.

Oswalt (4-5, 3.86) has been pitching with a strained rib cage muscle since spring training, and received a cortisone shot earlier this week on the muscle. Miller (6-6, 3.99) and Redding (3-5, 5.30) have been inconsistent.

And Dotel, promoted to the closer's role after the offseason trade of three-time All-Star Billy Wagner, finally drew the ire of fans after blowing his third save in 15 chances Tuesday night.

The crowd of 38,007 mercilessly booed Dotel off the mound after he allowed three runs in the loss to the Cubs. Boos could also be heard from the normally patient Houston crowd as the Astros struggled to generate any offense - they've been held to fewer than five runs for 14 straight games.

Dotel defiantly insisted his - and the team's - confidence hadn't been shaken.

"Sometimes you're going to go through tough times," Dotel said. "I think we're still fine."

Things could get worse before they get better, though.

Manager Jimy Williams has been forced to juggle the starting lineup in the past week because of injuries to veterans Jeff Bagwell (shoulder), Adam Everett (hamstring) and Richard Hidalgo (neck).

Williams even made a couple of unpopular moves in the clubhouse, dropping Bagwell from third to fifth in the lineup after he went through a slump on a recent road trip and benching Hidalgo in favor of the younger Jason Lane.

Speculation about Williams' job security has intensified during the Astros' slump, and the normally irascible manager has been even more defensive in recent days. He told reporters Wednesday that he didn't even know the players had held a players-only meeting.

"I certainly wasn't there," Williams said. But "if guys don't practice properly and don't play hard, I say, what am I going to have a meeting for? The bottom line is did you win or did you not win."