Houston Astros: With Three Men On...

HOUSTON - SEPTEMBER 14: Carlos Lee #45 of the Houston Astros walks back to the dugout after striking out in the fourth inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Minute Maid Park on September 14, 2011 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

With a definite improvement in baseball in Houston, the flaws become more pronounced. Why can't this team hit with three men on?

The momentum the Houston Astros have begun this season with has been nothing less than encouraging. We've seen pitching that outperforms the past (a combined ERA of 3.56- 7/16 in the NL), offense that outperforms the past (team BA of .255, 4th in the NL, and OBP of .339, 3rd in the NL) and even pretty good defense from a batch of players who don't necessarily inspire defensive confidence. With that mix on the table it's becoming very easy to believe that this team can win ball games.

I find myself with infinitely more hope when the 2012 Astros take the field...right up until the bases are loaded. Eleven times, yes 11, in this brand new season the Astros have found themselves with the bags jammed with runners. Not once in those possibility-laden scenarios have the Astros been able to send anyone home.

Compare their 0-11 bases loaded results to a team that's loaded the bases with similar frequency. The Arizona Diamondbacks have loaded the bases 12 times this year. Their result? Three hits that have driven in 9 runs. That's a tremendous difference in clutch hitting.

This Astros team gets on base a bit more easily, after all we're seeing walks at a rate that is unprecedented in recent years. Their 40 walks this season puts them at 4th in the NL and 6th overall in Major League Baseball. If they could only capitalize on those opportunities, Houston would have a team that is a contender in every game they play this season.

What is most disappointing about this "bases loaded" phenomenon so far is it is undermining rallies that are often early enough and big enough to retake a lead. This is one of those things that if you've followed the team the last couple of years really stands out.

After the trade deadline in 2011 when the Astros called up a crop of young, fresh faces, fans often watched as the team would fall behind only to rally late in the game. Last year the rallies either came too late or just didn't have quite enough umph to push them into the lead, resulting in a multitude of losses.

This year? The rallies are happening again, this time earlier and with plenty of momentum and ability to finish off the opponent. We've seen it several times already. Those rallies and comebacks would be so much easier if this team could find a way to put together effective offense when the bases are loaded. By my count, it's three games that would have definitely resulted in Ws.

Is it psychological? Maybe. Is it a lack of belief in their ability to get it done? Maybe. Is it a lack of ability? Not a chance. Brad Mills has his work cut out for him on this one and I don't envy his job here at all. But if he can figure out a way to get these guys to knock in runs when there are three men on? He'll be a hero.

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