Sunday, March 21, 2004

Astros court postseason success

Starting pitchers, lineup could carry Houston past Chicago

Florida Today

VIERA, Fla. - Starting pitching won't be the only thing on their side when the regular season starts.

Sentiment also figures to be with the Chicago Cubs, who were five outs from the World Series last year when that supposed billy goat curse struck again.

But forgive Houston's Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio if their tears for long-suffering Cubs' fans could fit into a thimble. A pair of anachronisms - stars who have stayed put during an age of unfettered free agency - they want to set baseball on a new course in their own city and could care less what happens in Chicago.

For all of the talk about the Cubs' failings through the years, the Astros are one of only three teams in the National League never to have played in the World Series.

"It would be huge," Biggio said of Houston getting to the World Series. "Bags has been here 14 years, I've been here 17 years. It would be awesome for the community and us."

The good news for Biggio and Bagwell, each of whom has played every game in multiple seasons and isn't getting any younger, is this could be the year that Houston goes to the World Series. Or at least wins a playoff series (The franchise, which started play in 1962, is 0-for-7 in that department).

The Astros landed marquee free agent Andy Pettitte during the offseason.

The left-handed pitcher turned down more money to stay with the New York Yankees because he wanted to return home. Pettitte's signing prompted Roger Clemens to come out of retirement and also join the Astros.

"Traditionally, being a middle-market team, you don't have the resources to go out and make a move," said Biggio, the team's leadoff hitter and center fielder. "When we picked those guys up, the reaction in the community was an uproar. The feeling is the same in the clubhouse."

Houston also has two more emerging stars in its starting rotation.

Roy Oswalt, pitching through multiple groin pulls last year, went 10-5 with a 2.97 ERA and Wade Miller went 14-13 with a 4.13 ERA and 161 strikeouts in 187 1/3 innings.

Houston's lineup is packed with power hitters, none more fearsome than Bagwell, who has won the franchise's only MVP award (1994) and belted 419 career home runs.

Biggio's name can almost always be found at the top of the lineup card.

Biggio badly wants to play in a World Series. The same can be said of Bagwell. "It would mean everything," Bagwell said.

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