Astros' assignment goes to Oswalt

Updated: February 25, 2004, 12:22 PM ET
Associated Press

KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- All starting opening day means to Roy Oswalt is that he'll pitch the first game. He doesn't see himself atop the Houston Astros' star-studded stable of arms.

"I see five aces," Oswalt said of a rotation in which he's followed by ex-Yankees Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens, then holdovers Wade Miller and Tim Redding. "I know in a card deck you only get four, but I see five right now."

Nevertheless, manager Jimy Williams will have just one baseball to hand over April 5 when Barry Bonds and the San Francisco Giants visit Houston, and the 26-year-old right-hander will take it for the second consecutive year.

The choice might have surprised some, given Clemens' stature and Pettitte's big contract, but the two new guys said Sunday they're satisfied.

"Jimy and I talked about it a couple of weeks ago and that's how we talked about it," Clemens said. "To me, all the guys are deserving. We've all had our opportunities to start opening day."

Oswalt, 26, battled through constant pain and three stints on the disabled list last year to go 10-5 with a 2.97 ERA in 21 starts. His 2.92 ERA in the past three seasons is better than either Clemens or Pettitte.

A 19-game winner in 2002, Oswalt chose to rehab his injury last summer rather than get surgery. The decision allowed him to return to the mound in September and win four games down the stretch as Houston's bid to catch the Chicago Cubs in the NL Central fell just short.

"He could have said, 'I'm injured, I need an operation, I might hurt myself if I try to continue pitching,'" Williams said. He didn't, and the manager rewarded his dedication with Sunday's move.

The decision didn't go unnoticed 90 minutes away in Tampa.

"He's got a lot of pitching over there," Yankees manager Joe Torre said.

He would know.

Setting up the starting rotation two weeks before exhibition games begin gives the pitchers time to prepare their throwing routines in February, a luxury Pettitte said he and Clemens never had in New York.

"Usually that's top secret where we come from," said Pettitte, who shares famously rigorous workout habits with Clemens. "For us, this is great."

Williams told the pitchers of his final decision just hours after pitchers and catchers underwent physicals and prepared for the first workout of spring training. Clemens and Pettitte reported to camp early Sunday morning.

Pettitte signed a $31.5 million, three-year deal with the Astros in December. That helped convince his friend and fellow Houston-area resident, Clemens, to end a brief retirement and join the Astros for $5 million this season.

As for their first day of workouts with the Astros, Pettitte said everything felt fairly normal except going through NL-style bunting and baserunning drills. He talked about getting schooled in the art of sliding and bunting, things the Yankees didn't exactly stress on reporting day.

Clemens, also switching leagues for the first time, chided Pettitte about his apparent wonderment at the nuances of offense.

"Surely you knew all that, right?" he said.

Clemens isn't going to paint himself on the issue of retirement this year. "I'm not even going to comment on that," Clemens, who ended a brief retirement at age 41 to join his hometown Astros, said when asked if this season would be the last. ... RHP Brandon Backe is day-to-day after pulling his left hamstring. ... LHP Carlos Hernandez, probably ticketed for Triple-A New Orleans to start the season, was allowed to delay his arrival until Monday to tend to personal matters.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press