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Astros -- and star acquisitions -- flounder in first half

7/12/2004 - Houston Astros

HOUSTON -- Carlos Beltran left a team that was 15½ games out
of first place for one that believed he was the missing piece for
its last-ditch effort to get to the World Series.

Turns out, Beltran might be no closer to the postseason in
Houston than he was in Kansas City.

"I can't believe it," Beltran said Monday at an All-Star game
news conference. "It's like nothing is going our way. We need to
start moving in the division because time is running out. We need
to change the way we play the game."

Left unsaid was whether those changes need to start with manager
Jimy Williams.

Speculation about Williams' job security intensified Monday, a
day after the Astros lost their sixth game in eight days to finish
the first half of the season in fifth place in the NL Central. The
Astros are 10½ games behind division leader St. Louis -- the first
time they've faced a double-digit deficit in the standings at the
break in 11 seasons.

That's a remarkable disappointment for a team that was a
preseason favorite to go to the World Series and led the division
for the first month and a half of the season. The All-Star break
couldn't have come at a better time for a slumping team, or a worse
one for a manager on the hot seat.

"Maybe what this club needs is a little break," said Williams,
who is one of the NL All-Star team's coaches. "No, we're not
getting the results that we want. We know that. We know where we
are and what we have to do. Maybe we can get this thing turned
around."

Astros owner Drayton McLane and general manager Gerry Hunsicker
have publicly expressed support for the embattled manager, but
their patience may be waning as the Astros chances of catching the
Cardinals slowly slips away.

Williams has guided the Astros to two second-place finishes,
losing the division race last season in the final week. Much more
was expected this season with the free-agent signings of former New
York Yankees teammates Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte.

Houston has failed to deliver thus far.

"It's been very disappointing," Astros first baseman Jeff
Bagwell said. "Obviously, we thought we'd be playing a lot better
at this point than we are right now."

The Astros have been surprisingly punchless on offense, ranking
only 19th in the majors in scoring. Their highly touted pitching
staff has struggled as both Andy Pettitte and Wade Miller have
spent time on the disabled list. And Beltran hasn't been the quick
fix they expected -- the All-Star center fielder is hitting .263.

Clemens acknowledged that the Astros' struggles have put a
damper on his comeback from a 78-day "retirement."

"That's kind of your worst nightmare when you make these
decisions," Clemens said. "Regardless if I'm playing well or not,
I want to see smiles on the guys next to me. If you don't have a
couple of guys coming along with you, you get the handshake and a
pat on the back and you go home and watch the playoffs."

Hunsicker has repeatedly emphasized that the club has loaded up
solely for an autumn finish -- Beltran is a free agent, Clemens was
coaxed out of retirement, Jeff Kent and Craig Biggio are in the
final years of their contracts and Bagwell is nearing the end of
his career.

McLane quelled speculation earlier this week that he'd consider
shipping Clemens, Beltran or anyone else before the July 31 trading
deadline. The team held a players-only meeting last Tuesday, and
Williams called another the next night as the rumors about his job
escalated.

"It's frustrating that it's getting to a point where Jimy is
getting criticized," Kent said.

Still, the Astros aren't completely out of it.

Houston is only 3½ games back in the race for a wild card berth,
and as the Florida Marlins proved during their run to the title
last season, there's plenty of time left.

"We just have to regroup and turn it around," Biggio said.
"The talent is good enough to do that. That's the difference
between this team and some of the teams we had before."