Shooting Stars: Astros Showing Signs of Playoff Run

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Shooting Stars: Astros Showing Signs of Playoff Run
(Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)

Don't look now, but the Houston Astros are making a run for the first place Cardinals in the NL Central division. 

A 3-2 win over the redbirds on Monday night put the Astros just three games back of the division lead and improved their record to 47-46, marking just the second time Houston has surpassed the .500 mark this season. 

Houston is in a good position this year to make a run for the playoffs, especially if the Astros make their usual late-season surge.  

Houston already has a leg up on last season, where it fell short of taking the Wild Card by 3.5 games. 

Mother Nature wasn't on Houston's side when Hurricane Ike came to Texas and forced the Astros to play a "home" series against the Cubs in Milwaukee's Miller Parkless than a two-hour drive from the heart of Cub Nationlate in the season. The Astros lost both games, halting any chance of a playoff run they had left. 

Nevertheless, it was Houston's inability to produce wins in the first half of the season that kept the Astros from the playoffs. Last year at this time, Houston held onto a 46-52 record and was struggling to stay afloat in the standings. 

This season, Houston is catching spectators by surprise and hopes to make its first playoff bid since it was swept by the Chicago White Sox in the 2005 World Series.

The Astros' pitching staff is being led by 30-year-old Wandy Rodriguez, who has already matched his win total from all of last year with nine and holds an impressive 2.81 ERA. 

Rodriguez has earned a win in four of his last five starts and has allowed one run or less in his last three starts, which includes six shutout innings against the Dodgers and a complete-game shutout against the Pirates. He also leads the Astros with a 112 strikeouts and is second only to Roy Oswalt in innings pitched. 

Oswalt is easily the workhorse of the team with 128 innings pitched and regularly works on just four days of rest. He holds a misleading 6-4 record and is right at 100 strikeouts. 

However, Oswalt is looking better now than any other point of the season. He has pitched two complete games over his last four starts, one of which was against the league-leading Dodgers. In that game, he allowed just four hits and one run. 

Oswalt is making up for a slow start to his season, as he didnt earn his first win until his eighth start. Since that win, Oswalt has dropped his ERA from 4.50 to 3.65.

Houston's bats are led by Lance Berkman, who is pulling his batting average out of the gutter due to an early-season slump. He was batting a weak .232 at the beginning of June, but since then has raised his average to a more respectable .270. Berkman leads the team in home runs with 18 and in RBI with 55. 

Carlos Lee follows close to Berkman with 14 homers, 53 runs batted in, and a .309 average. The rest of the Astros line up does not taper off, with players like Miguel Tejada and Hunter Pence having solid seasons to beef up the Astros' order. 

Speedster Michael Bourn is showing a lot of improvement from last season, where he stole 41 bases but batted just .229. Bourn's lack of production at the plate kept him from being an everyday starter last year, but this year, he is first in the NL in steals with 34 and is hitting .283. 

Houston plays the Cardinals in game two of a three-game set on Tuesday night at Minute Maid Park. A win from Wandy Rodriguez could put the Astros even closer to first place in a tight NL Central division.

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