the astros may well be looking past this weekend's series against st louis, to their far more critical set in philadelphia monday tuesday and wednesday of next week. the 'stros currently stand half a game behind the phillies in the wild-card standings (tied with them in the loss column); they're a game ahead of florida, two up on the mets, and three up (loss column) on the nationals. i think the wild-card is the astros' to lose; they have the best pitching and the easiest schedule, and with the other contenders (all being from one division) playing each other more or less constantly through september, the astros will have the opportunity to gain ground on at least one rival every day.
about a month ago, the Mad Lithuanian wondered if we oughtn't be rooting for the astros in the wild-card race, because if they win then stl would draw san diego in the nlds instead of florida or philadelphia or the mets. and of course the padres are no good; but they do have jake peavy, who could throw twice in a five-game series, and they have a very good bullpen (better than ours) spearheaded by trevor hoffman. on paper the phillies would seem to present the least difficulty; they have one good starting pitcher (brett myers) and one good reliever (billy wagner) but little else, and their lineup no longer has cardinal-killing jim thome, who is out for the year. but that's on paper; in practice the cardinals played like crap against the phillies this year, going 2-4 against them and yielding 46 runs in the six games. . . . . not that this means anything. the marlins look much more formidable on paper, but we played them well this year, and their bullpen is such a mess it more than negates their incredible starting staff.
another thought: if the astros do get in, there's a high likelihood we'll face them again in the nlcs -- good? bad? no beltran this time, but they do have pettite; also a better bullpen led again by the unhittable brad lidge. they can't hit a lick, and they're a horrible road team, including an 0-6 mark at busch stadium. the cards have played them very well all year, but even so . . . . . this won't be like last year, with pete munro and brandon backe making four of the seven starts. this year it'll be clemens, oswalt, and pettite for six of the seven games.
i don't know where i'm going with this, except to say: this weekend's games are big. not just for houston but also for st louis. mark mulder pitches tonight in the house where his midseason swoon really started -- a 3-inning, 6-run debacle vs clemens on june 5. he's got a troubling little injury, and --much as i hate to admit it -- we need this guy. for all the unfavorable words he has drawn on this site and elsewhere, the fact is that mulder has been the cards' 2d-most reliable starter the last two months -- six "quality starts" in his last nine outings and a post-all-star era of 2.48. it's a night game (1.90 era!); let's see how he looks.