SHL Expansion One: Shea It Ain’t So
In typical Expansion One fashion, a potentially momentous week of divisional matchups instead fizzled into a bland mess of mediocrity. After three more weeks of play, however, thereâ€™s a new king of the hill, and one fewer realistic challenger.
During the last week of July, all eyes were inÂ Houston, where the division-leadingÂ MetsÂ andÂ AstrosÂ had a four game set for supremacy. TheÂ first gameÂ was a highly anticipated pitchersâ€™ duel between New Yorkâ€™s David Cone and Houstonâ€™s Roger Clemens, and neither man disappointed. Both went eight innings, and struck out a combined 22 batsmen (14 for Cone, 8 for Clemens). The teams traded runs in the middle innings before a Craig Biggio sacrifice fly in the eighth scored Carlos Beltran, breaking a 1-1 tie.
To handle the last three Mets batters, the Astros sent out closer Billy Wagner. The hometown faithful were appalled to see Beltran lead off with a single, and Tommie Agee to follow with a double, putting two men in scoring position with none out. Wagner regrouped, however, and set down the next three men in order to preserve the victory.
The following evening was no better for the batters, as Jerry Koosman and Mike Scott both turned in strong outings. In the top of the sixth, Darryl Strawberry hit a solo home run to give New York a 3-1 lead. The one run margin, however, was promptly restored in the home half of the frame, when Houstonâ€™s Beltran (not to be confused with he of the Mets) stole home.
In the end, though, Beltran was not the dual-identity player with the biggest impact. Billy Wagner, whoâ€™d slammed the door for the Astros the night before, was summoned to do the same for the Mets in game two. Again, he allowed the first two batters to reach base, this time on consecutive walks. After a sacrifice fly by Carlos Lee that moved the tying run to third, he recorded a pair of outs, andÂ New York got the win, 3-2.
The third and fourth matches had none of the drama of the first two games, but for Houston it was just as well. On Thursday, the Astros chased Johan Santana with three home runs in the first three innings, including a pair by Carlos Lee. Nolan Ryan was impressive, and despite a three run homer by Strawberry in the eighth, New York was never able to mount a serious threat.Â The final score was 8-5, and Houston claimed sole possession of first place. They solidified this position the following evening with aÂ 5-0 shutoutÂ in the last game of the series. Roy Oswalt played masterfully, striking out eight and helping his own cause with an RBI triple in the sixth inning.
Since that series, there have been three weeks of play in August. In 18 contests, the Mets have gone 7-11 and currently sit three games back. Their offense has been strong, and Tom Seaver has had his best month yet, going 4-0 with a 1.06 WHIP and .212 batting average against. Unfortunately, the other Mets starters (Gooden, Santana, Koosman, Cone and Jon Matlack) are a combined 0-9, and none of them have an ERA under 7.00.
During the same timeframe, Houston is 9-9. Theyâ€™ve been led by Biggio and Bagwell on offense, and have gotten solid performances from Oswalt, Scott and Ryan on the mound. A pleasant surprise for the Astros has been Jose Cruz, recently promoted from Triple-A. In 26 big league games, heâ€™s posted a line of .316/.369/.453.
In all the jostling for position thatâ€™s taken place in Expansion One, only one team has taken a real fallâ€”the Texas Rangers. They lost three of four to theÂ AngelsÂ in the last week of July, including aÂ 6-5 heartbreaker on the 31st. Going into the 8th, Bert Blyleven was pitching a gem and had a 4-1 lead. A barrage of singles, however, led to five runs for the Angels, and Texas was unable to overcome the deficit.
In August, the Rangers have been downright putrid, and they currently sit eight games out of first. The worst of it transpired over 11 days in the middle of the month, when they played nine of ten contests on the road. In those ten games, they surrendered an unbelievable 78 runs; predictably enough, they won only twice. That included consecutive sweepsÂ at the hands of Kansas City, Milwaukee and St. Louis.
What must be especially galling for the club is that, in the meantime, their offense has been excellent. They have five regulars slugging over .500 and five with an OBP over .350. These are led by a resurgent Alex Rodriguez and the ever-steady Rafael Palmeiro. Even this outpouring of offense, though, is bound to go for naught when the pitching staff is giving up eight runs per contest.
Looking ahead to September and October, scheduling may play a big role in the pennant race. Houston will play 18 of 25 games on the road in September, including series with the Angels and Rangers. New York plays mostly at home, but will finish the month with a brutal six-game stretch against Detroit, Baltimore and the Yankees. The Angels also have a tough schedule ahead of them, but get to finish the season in mid-October with four games against the Rangers, while Houston and New York battle each other. Currently in second place, the Angels may still sneak into first place before the season is out.Â