Astros' Oswalt Feels Back on Track
Oswalt's 8-6 record and his 4.12 ERA from last year were pedestrian numbers, to be sure, leaving many baseball fans to no doubt wonder what happened to the guy who had been a perennial Cy Young-caliber pitcher.
A bad back. A bad bullpen. A slight loss of command.
Add it up and it was enough to send Oswalt to the worst season of an otherwise brilliant career. As he tries to wipe away the memory of that one, there doesn't seem to be too much concern around Astros camp that 2009 was anything but a speed bump for Oswalt.
"We know he's going to be great every time," Hunter Pence said.
Oswalt, 32, has a career record of 137-70 with a 3.22 ERA, numbers that stand up against guys like Roy Halladay, Johan Santana and CC Sabathia. Considering that Oswalt has been good far more than he's been bad -- or even average, as he was last year -- he isn't approaching this season with a chip on his shoulder.
"I've been here 10 years," he said. "I don't have anything to prove."
To those critics who wondered if last year was the beginning of the end, Oswalt simply shrugs his shoulders.
"If you win 20, they want you to win 22," he said. "If you win 22, they want you to win 32. You can only do so much. If you give 100 percent on the field, that's all you can. If it works out, it works out. You can't do anything else. I don't try to live by other people's standards. I try to do my own thing. If it's not good enough, it's not good enough, but I can live with it when I go home."
As for last year, Oswalt's main problem was a bad back. He'd had sporadic back issues for a few years, although he hadn't missed more than one start because of his back until last year, when he missed three. Oswalt said he pitched through some pain, but "I don't blame anything on that. It's something you've got to deal with when you are a baseball player."
Pence said Oswalt "was obviously battling through some health issues that he's too tough to talk about."
Oswalt did end up with the highest ERA of his career, but his other rate numbers -- WHIP, strikeouts per inning, walks per inning, homers per inning – were in line with his career numbers.
"Certainly I've seen him better, but he wasn't bad last year," said Lance Berkman. "I think he's getting a lot of heat, like he was horrible. He could have had 15 or 16 wins, which is what he normally produces. I've definitely seen him sharper, and he'd tell you he's had better years, as far as command and that kind of thing, but if you play 10 or 15 years in the big leagues, you are going to have a few bad years. Chalk it up to a little injury problem he was dealing with, and he never really got on a roll. It happens."
Oswalt's other problem was that he didn't have a very good bullpen supporting him. The Astros bullpen ranked 12th in the league with a 4.13 ERA, and they blew 27 save opportunities, most in the league. Oswalt left a game with the lead, only to see the bullpen blow it, a league-high seven times.
In an effort to fix the bullpen this year, the Astros have replaced one closer (Jose Valverde) with two (Brandon Lyon and Matt Lindstrom). Oswalt believes he can prevent any further back trouble with a new regimen of exercises he started over the winter, with the help of two back specialists.
So far this spring Oswalt has pitched six scoreless innings in two outings.
Oswalt isn't putting any number expectations on himself for 2010 -- other than wanting to get 35 starts. The Astros, who lost 88 games, are expecting that much of their improvement will be because of a bounceback by Oswalt.
"It makes quite a bit of difference," Berkman said. "That's obviously what we're banking on, him coming back and being as effective as he's been his entire career."