Bagwell booster propels Astros back into orbit


The Houston Astros are making like Apollo 13. They appeared to be headed for a flameout last Monday, when their club-record losing streak reached 11 and threatened to knock them out of the National League wild-card race. But they got back on course with a 4-2 record the rest of the week, and trail the Los Angeles Dodgers by just a half-game.

The situation easily could have gotten worse. The Astros took that losing streak to Atlanta on Tuesday and scored a "reverse lock" series victory over the Braves to begin their recovery.

Best news is that first baseman Jeff Bagwell has returned from the disabled list and looks like he never left. He had two hits in his first game back on Friday night and hit his 17th home run on Saturday. If he is even close to 100 percent down the stretch, the Astros may again be flying high over the rest of the crowded NL wild-card field.

If not, another NL Central also-ran could sneak into the picture. The Chicago Cubs went 5-2 this week to climb over .500 and assert themselves as a legitimate wild-card contender. It wasn't a very good week for the Braves' starting rotation, so it wasn't a very good week (2-4) for the Braves. Perennial Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux threw a six-hitter on Thursday, but the rest of the rotation combined for a 6.59 ERA before rookie Jason Schmidt and Mark Wohlers combined on a six-hit shutout yesterday. Not that it matters at this point in the lopsided NL East race. . . . Not a good weekend for NL East teams. The only team in the division with a victory Friday or Saturday was the Montreal Expos, before all the NL East teams but the Expos won yesterday. . . . Former Oriole Mike Devereaux is making the most of his limited playing time in Atlanta. He was 3-for-8 last week with a home run and three RBIs. In his only start, he hit his first NL home run off Cubs ace Jaime Navarro.

NL West

If there ever was a time for the San Diego Padres to make their move in the NL West, this is it. They play their next nine games against the three worst teams in the league -- New York, St. Louis and Pittsburgh. . . . San Francisco Giants outfielder Deion Sanders was sidelined a couple of days with a migraine headache, probably from the stress of once again trying to decide where to play football. The Cincinnati Reds insisted that football considerations played no part in their decision to trade Sanders in July, but they have to be happy that they were able to unload him before he started getting the itch to return to the NFL. He'll probably finish the baseball season, but either way, a potential world championship team doesn't need that kind of distraction.

AL Central

Cleveland Indians general manager John Hart seems like a lock to be named American League Executive of the Year by The Sporting News for the second year in a row, but some consideration should go to Kansas City Royals GM Herk Robinson. His decision to rebuild the Royals at midseason appears to be paying off. The club entered last night with a 5-1 record for the week and a half-game deficit in the AL wild-card race, which isn't bad considering that there are only three true veterans in the everyday lineup. . . . The Indians had their nine-game winning streak broken on Saturday, but they still have an outside chance to win 100 games in a 144-game season. They would have to go 18-8 the rest of the way, but are clearly good enough to do that. . . . Big disappointment in small marketville: The Milwaukee Brewers went 1-6 this week to slip back into the wild-card pack.

AL East

The New York Yankees silenced their biggest critic last week. Owner George Steinbrenner didn't take the club's recent eight-game losing streak very well. The Yankees responded with a 5-2 run that lifted them back into the thick of the crowded wild-card race. Steinbrenner wasn't the only Yankee who needed an emotional lift. First baseman Don Mattingly was so discouraged -- both with the Yankees and the state of baseball -- that he told reporters last Monday that he was considering playing in Japan next year.

AL West

There is no reason to panic in Anaheim. The Angels, who yesterday lost for the 12th time in 13 games, should take comfort in their terrific sense of timing. Every team has an extended downturn in the course of a long season. The key is to be standing when it's over, and the Angels still hold a 5 1/2 -game lead in the AL West. Better now than in late September. . . . Same goes for Angels MVP candidate Jim Edmonds, who sat out yesterday with a 1-for-22 slump. Judging from his run-production numbers (30 home runs, 97 RBIs), he had a few at-bats to spare.

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