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Houston vets battling to stay injury-free

Houston vets battling to stay injury-free

HOUSTON -- The Astros stormed out of the gates following the All-Star break, winning six of eight games and putting themselves within one game of the lead in the National League Central. Like they had done so many years before, they were making another second-half surge.

Just as fans in Houston started to get excited about the prospects of another fantastic finish, age caught up with the club.

Lance Berkman, who led the team in nearly every offensive category, strained a calf muscle and landed on the disabled list. Darin Erstad strained a hamstring and was put on the disabled list. And ace pitcher Roy Oswalt strained his back in his third start after the break and missed a start.

As the injuries mounted, so did the losses. Houston lost two of three games at home to the Mets on July 24-26, before struggling through a crucial road trip to division rivals Chicago and St. Louis. The Cubs took three of four from the Astros, the Cardinals won the first two games of a three-game series.

The Astros have had 15 different players go on the disabled list this year, with ailments ranging from heart surgery (Aaron Boone) to shingles (LaTroy Hawkins). In between, there was a handful of hamstring and calf strains.

"We're going to have that because we have an old team," said Berkman, who's been on the disabled list since July 23 with a left calf strain. "Whether it's this year or next, we're going to have to have some new faces in here. It's inevitable, but in a way it's nice to see guys that the organization thinks highly enough of to come up and try to help us."

Berkman is referring to prospect Bud Norris, a right-hander called up from Triple-A Round Rock on July 29. He became the first Astros player this year to make his Major League debut when he threw three innings in relief at Wrigley Field the day he joined the team.

The addition of Norris, 24, injected some life into the aging Astros, who have six position players that are 32 or older. The average age of their rotation was 33.8 -- the oldest in baseball -- before they dumped Russ Ortiz last week and plugged in Norris, who made his first start on Sunday.

Houston began play Sunday, 5 1/2 games behind the division-leading Cardinals.

"We've had a significant amount of health issues to work around and navigate through, and we're still in the thick of things," Astros general manager Ed Wade said. "We need to get healthy and stay healthy, and that's usually the case with any team that has a chance to win. We need some guys to step up. Norris is our version of a Trading Deadline move at this stage. We need him to pitch at the level we think he's capable of pitching."

The bullpen has been hit especially hard by injuries. Closer Jose Valverde missed 41 games with a right calf strain, and setup man Doug Brocail missed a combined 89 games with two DL stints for a rotator cuff strain and a left hamstring strain.

Hawkins went on the disabled list July 28 with shingles, and Chris Sampson missed 12 games in July with right-shoulder spasms.

"We've had our share of odd injuries along the way and some of them you could anticipate with age, but it's just been one thing after the other," Wade said. "But I can't use that as an excuse because I think we've done a really good job of having players step up and pick up the slack for us."

The arrival of Norris was significant because of how few high-level prospects the Astros have in their Minor League system. He's the first player from the 2006-09 Drafts to reach the Majors with the Astros. Prior to that, Hunter Pence (selected in 2004) stood as the last drafted player to make an impact on the Major League team.

Oswalt, 31, is all for an infusion of youth. He made his Major League debut in 2001 with a highly anticipated group of Astros prospects that included Tim Redding, Carlos Hernandez, Morgan Ensberg, Jason Lane and Keith Ginter. Oswalt, Ensberg and Lane helped the Astros reach the World Series in 2005.

"There's been a big gap since my class came up," Oswalt said.

Still, if the Astros are going to get back in the race over the final two months they're going to have to get healthy and rely on their veterans, especially Berkman and Oswalt. Houston has struggled mightily on offense since Berkman went down, and Oswalt was pitching some of the best baseball of his career when he was injured.

"The older you get, the tougher it is to make it through 162 games in one piece," Berkman said. "Really and truly, for the average age we have, we've done a fairly decent job of keeping everybody healthy. We haven't had a whole lot of guys out at the same time. It seems like we've had a guy go out when somebody else is getting healthy.

"We're still right there, and if we can get everybody fully healthy, there's still a chance to make a run here in the second half."

THE ROAD AHEAD
• Home games remaining: 28 (through Sunday)
• Road games remaining: 29 (through Sunday)
• Games vs. teams over .500: 30
• Key series: at St. Louis, Aug. 25-27; at Chicago, Aug. 31-Sept. 2; vs. St. Louis, Sept. 21-23; at Philadelphia, Sept. 28-Oct. 1.

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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