Surprise - Astros may reach the playoffs after all

Friday, October 1, 2004

HOUSTON -- The Houston Astros have done little wrong in the past month after doing little right for most of the season.

After firing their manager and playing catch-up for the past three months, the Astros began Thursday with an improbable lead in the NL playoff race. They were atop the wild-card standing for the first time this season, a half-game ahead of San Francisco and the Chicago Cubs, who lost Thursday in Cincinnati.

"We're playing now like we're not going to get beat," new Astros manager Phil Garner said. "When the pressure has been greatest, we've gotten it done."

Such a scenario looked farfetched when Houston dropped from first to fifth in the NL Central and fired manager Jimy Williams during the All-Star break when the team was 44-44. Garner replaced him but made little difference at first, and after a month the Astros had dropped to 56-60.

Then came a four-game winning streak to get the Astros back to .500. By early September, the Astros had won 12 straight to pull even with the Cubs. Now after winning six of their last seven, they're in position to make the postseason.

"We're trying to get our ticket to the dance," said Roger Clemens, who pitched six innings in the Astros' 6-4 win over St. Louis on Wednesday night. "At one point it looked like we weren't invited and we were just going to drop in on everybody."

If this sounds familiar, think back to the Florida Marlins' late playoff push last year.

The Marlins fired manager Jeff Torborg and hired Jack McKeon after a 19-29 start, continued to struggle for a couple of months and then recovered to seize the NL wild card en route to winning the World Series.

Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker repeatedly made references to the Marlins' run when he introduced Garner as the team's new manager the day after the All-Star game.

Back then, Hunsicker sounded like a man desperately searching for hope. Now, Hunsicker sounds like a prophet.

"There's some magic in the air," Hunsicker said with a satisfied grin.

With only a three-game series at home against Colorado left in the regular season, the Astros are finally becoming the playoff contender everyone thought they'd be at the start of the year.

Just much later than expected.

"They were supposed to be good earlier in the season," St. Louis shortstop Edgar Renteria said. "I don't know what happened to them. But they're playing like they were supposed to now."

Not so long ago, Houston appeared on its way to a disappointing finish after beginning the season with expectations of the team's first World Series appearance in its 42-year history.

Things really bottomed out when Houston lost two of three at Montreal in mid-August.

Since Aug. 15, the Astros have the best record in the major leagues at 33-10. Now all that stands between the Astros and at least a share of the wild card is their series with Colorado, starting today.

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