Third baseman Morgan Ensberg is a mellow Southern Californian who prefers to spend his spare time at the beach with a book. First baseman--outfielder Lance Berkman is a hell raiser and native Texan who likes to hunt on his days off. In the Astros lineup, however, the two 29-year-old players have something important in common: With the careers of Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio--mainstays in Houston since the early '90s--coming to a close, Berkman and Ensberg have emerged as the new faces of the franchise.
Bagwell, 37, has been sidelined by an arthritic right shoulder since May 4; Biggio, who was hitting .269 with a .336 on-base percentage at week's end, can become a free agent after the season and turns 40 in December. "People who think of the Astros are always going to think of those two," says Berkman. "But who bears the burden of driving the offense? Naturally, as they get older they are going to hand the burden off to Morgan and me."
Consider the torch already passed. The number 3 and 4 hitters in a lineup that includes three first-year regulars Berkman (.322 average, 11 homers, 41 RBIs from June 1 through Sunday) and Ensberg (.300, 19, 56) are a big reason that the resurgent Astros held a two-game lead over the Marlins and Nationals in the NL wild-card race. The strong rotation has been a constant--Houston starters led the majors with a combined 3.41 ERA--but the Astros' improved offense (4.8 runs per game from June 1, up from 3.6 over April and May) is why they own the league's best record (45-21) since a 15-30 start.
"After losing [centerfielder] Carlos Beltran and [second baseman] Jeff Kent [to free agency], there were big holes to fill in the lineup," says Houston general manager Tim Purpura, "and we weren't sure where that production would come from."
That's because Berkman tore the ACL in his right knee playing flag football in November and it was still sore when he finally joined the lineup in May, and Ensberg was coming off a disappointing 2004 season in which he hit only 10 home runs--down from 25 the year before. (Last year Ensberg didn't hit his first homer until July, an astonishing drought for someone who averaged one in every 15 at bats in 2003.)
"What no one really knew was that when [Ensberg] came to spring training [in '04], his right arm was hurting really bad," manager Phil Garner says of Ensberg's nagging injury. "He tried to fight through it, but he didn't have any power. He came back this year swinging with more authority."
Just as Ensberg has regained his stroke, so has Berkman--who hit at least 25 homers and drove in at least 90 runs each of the last four seasons--come around as his injury slowly healed. "I'm probably 85 percent," Berkman says.
With those two providing the punch Purpura was looking for--and with Roger Clemens (11-4, 1.38 ERA), Roy Oswalt (14-9, 2.46) and Andy Pettitte (9-8, 2.64) dominating the opposition--the Astros are eyeing a return to the postseason and a chance to avenge their loss to the Cardinals in last year's National League Championship Series.
Ensberg remains true to his laid-back disposition. "It's been a great run to get back into contention," he says, "but we've got a lot more unfinished business to take care of."
Three Up Three Down
Miguel Cabrera, LF, Marlins
He hit .420 from the All-Star break through Sunday and led the majors with 18 game-winning RBIs.
The team kept rolling without injured stars Scott Rolen and Larry Walker, thanks to Abraham Nunez (.306) and So Taguchi (.280).
Felix Hernandez, RHP, Mariners
The 19-year-old became the youngest player to make his big league debut as a starter in 27 years, allowing one earned run in a 3-1 loss to the Tigers.
Rangers Small Ball
With five sacrifice bunts and 18 sacrifice flies, Texas was on pace to shatter the record for fewest combined sacrifices in a year (50).
Bobby Abreu, RF, Phillies
Since his stunning performance in the All-Star home run derby, Abreu had hit only two dingers in 85 second-half at bats.
While the Dodgers (17-32 after June 12) kept sliding, the Angels blew an eight-game lead and were tied with the A's in the AL West through Sunday.
SCOTT ROVAK/US PRESSWIRE
After a slow start, Ensberg and Berkman (inset) have powered Houston to the best record in the NL since May 24.
¬†[See caption above.]