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Sunday, July 25, 2004

Astros: Moving on Up? 

You can't really call something a turning point in the present. Those labels come long after the fact. But if Houston manages to climb back into the playoff picture come September, then today's win over Milwaukee might possibly represent THE day that things turned around.

After splitting the first two games of the series, today saw the Astros' season hinge on the most important rubber match of the campaign thus far. A loss meant that Houston would drop back two games below .500, while losing ground on a division rival -- one of nine teams in front of them in the Wild Card race. A win, though, would vault them into seventh on that list, and even their record on the year.

The result? A dominating 9-1 win, which might just signal the spark that Astros fans have waited for during the past six weeks.

The highlight most certainly came with the game pretty much in hand. Jeff Kent took exception to a horrendous called-strike two in the 7th, and he took his time returning to the batter's box. Home umpire Chris Guccione tossed Kent, but to the fans' delight, Kent stuck around long enough to cover home plate in dirt after a fiery shouting match with Gucchione.

Enter Jose Vizcaino. Facing two strikes already, Viz lined a shot into center, and Lance Berkman just beat a throw home to ignite a three-run rally that extended Houston's lead to 9-0. From what I could gather via the TV broadcast, Minute Maid Park was as electric at that moment as it's been all year long.

I'm not ready to proclaim Kent's Lou Pinella impression as 2004's "Gregg Zaun Memorial Grand Slam Motivating Moment," but this team seems to have regained some of its passion and desire to win lately, and that breeds both confidence and optimism, at least with me.

So what now? Houston hosts the D'Backs for a four-game set this week -- a Randy Johnson-free four-game set at that. They sit five games behind Wild Card co-leaders San Diego and San Francisco, who play each other four times this week. That means that taking even three games will go a long way.

As Bill Brown noted on today's broadcast, Houston doesn't have the luxury of thinking more than a game ahead at any given time right now. But with four wins in their past five games, they're getting closer. Now they just have to keep it going.


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