By Kevin Kelly
Enquirer Staff Writer
HOUSTON - Jimy Williams had taken his spot along the first base line at Minute Maid Park when he became an unwitting distraction.
Albert Pujols, who's hitting .304, has helped the Cardinals to a .276 batting average - best in the NL.
The Associated Press/ERIC GAY
A burst of boos from the hometown crowd accompanied Williams' introduction as an All-Star coach Tuesday.
Astros officials made it clear by firing Williams and replacing him with Phil Garner on Wednesday that they were equally unsatisfied.
"As far as the season goes, we haven't been playing well," Houston All-Star pitcher Roger Clemens said. "Regardless of if I'm playing well or not, I want to see smiles on the guys next to me."
The Astros, who built their 2004 roster with a World Series in mind and were tabbed preseason favorites to win the National League Central, instead begin the second half straining to keep the first-place Cardinals in sight from 10 1/2 games back.
"The Cardinals are playing some phenomenal baseball right now," Astros second baseman Jeff Kent said. "They'll be tough to catch."
St. Louis finished the first half with the best record in the National League (54-33) - going 31-11 after May 26th - and leads the second-place Chicago Cubs by seven games.
How are the Cardinals doing it?
Paced offensively by All-Stars Scott Rolen and Albert Pujols, the Cardinals lead the league in team batting (.276) and runs (465). The pitching has been solid (3.81 team ERA), and they have the fifth-best fielding percentage in the NL.
"We knew coming into the season that everybody picked everybody else," St. Louis All-Star shortstop Edgar Renteria said. "Anybody can look good on paper, but you've got to play the games right to win. That's what we've been doing. We're doing almost everything right."
The playoff-wise Cubs, who are one game behind the Giants in the wild-card standings, believe they have enough to make up ground.
Chicago now has its two most important pieces - Kerry Wood and Mark Prior - healthy and back in the starting rotation. They started just 15 games combined during the first half of the season.
Wood was activated from the disabled list Sunday, and in his first start since May 11 allowed one run on three hits over five innings for an 8-4 win over St. Louis.
"We still have a ways to go," Cubs right fielder Sammy Sosa said. "There's no question about what we can do. We need to get ready for the second half, and go out there and play every game like we did last year."
The Reds trail the Cardinals by 7 1/2 games, and the wild card-leading Giants by 1 1/2 games. A 17-game stretch against NL Central opponents begins today with the first of a four-game series against the Cardinals at Great American Ball Park.
While first baseman Sean Casey is expected to come off the disabled list, two-thirds of the Reds' starting outfield remains on the DL.
Center fielder Ken Griffey Jr. suffered a partially torn right hamstring just before the All-Star break. Right fielder Austin Kearns is rehabilitating from thumb surgery.
"As far as our team is concerned, health has a lot to do with it," shortstop Barry Larkin said, "Then we'll also have to see what happens with the trading deadline (July 31) . . . The next couple of weeks are going to be very interesting."
Milwaukee trails St. Louis by 8 1/2 games, followed by Houston (10 1/2) and Pittsburgh (14 1/2).
"There's still hope," Clemens said.
"You can make a run, and that's what we are looking to do."
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