Struggling Astros look for solutions

Thursday, June 17, 2004

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 lost again Wednesday and have dropped 20 of 32 games over the past month, a surprising tailspin for a team that was a favorite to go to the World Series and led the division for the first month and a half.

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. 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.

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.

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).

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