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Clemens, Oswalt a formidable pair

The last team to claim a spot in the National League playoffs is also the most dangerous, thanks to Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt.

The Houston Astros have the best starting pitching on their side of the eight-team tournament. That's an amazing statement given the casualties they have suffered along the way.

Left-hander Andy Pettitte (elbow surgery) and right-hander Wade Miller (rotator cuff injury) are lost for the season. Tim Redding, who also opened the season in the rotation, has pitched so poorly he probably won't get a spot on the playoff roster. Instead manager Phil Garner will fill out his playoff rotation with Brandon Backe and, if he sticks with four starters, Peter Munro.

But in Clemens and Oswalt, Garner is holding a two-man trump card that has the potential to be almost as dominant as the one Bob Brenly parlayed into a World Series championship with Arizona in 2001.

Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling were 43-12 with a combined 2.74 ERA that season. Clemens and Oswalt, who could finish 1-2 in the NL Cy Young race, are 38-14 with a 3.25 ERA combined this season.

They provide Houston with the star quality that the other NL playoff rotations lack. With Cardinals manager Tony La Russa announcing that Chris Carpenter will be skipped in the first round, there's not a true ace on any of the other three playoff teams. The Astros have two.

And things are breaking right for Houston.

Garner had announced on Saturday night that he would use Clemens on three days' rest Sunday in the potential playoff clincher against Colorado. He refused to get greedy and hold out his for the playoff opener.

Then the Astros got lucky. Clemens caught a touch of the flu from Redding. He was running a fever when he arrived at Minute Maid Park, so Garner switched to Backe. The 26-year-old Houston acquired from Tampa Bay for Geoff Blum -- what a deal that was -- took a shutout into the sixth inning against the Rockies while also contributing a two-run single.

The 5-3 victory meant no fear of a one-game wild-card playoff in San Francisco, putting Clemens and Oswalt on track for Games 1 and 2 against Atlanta. They are positioned to work three times in a five-game series -- four if Garner is willing to use both of them on three days' rest.

"Roger gets his regular rest and a chance to be healthy,'' Jeff Bagwell said. "Then he can start Game 1 for us. It worked out well for us.''

If the Astros can do something no Texas team has ever done, winning a postseason series, Clemens and Oswalt could combine to start 11-13 of a possible 19 playoff games for Houston.

Backe and Munro are going to be given trials by fire in October. But the reality is that all of the NL's playoff rotations have major questions.

Here's a look at the other playoff rotations, in the order of their strength:

2. Braves
John Thomson, who had been scheduled to be manager Bobby Cox's No. 2 starter, said he felt something "grab'' in his side when he worked at chilly Wrigley Field on Saturday. He left the game after three innings, and might not be available for the Division Series.

That leaves the tentative Atlanta rotation as Jaret Wright, Mike Hampton and the suspect Russ Ortiz (4.85 ERA in the second half, including a 5.57 mark in September). Paul Byrd, who gave up nine runs in four innings to the Cubs on Sunday, will probably move into the bullpen as a long man.

Hampton, who started only twice in September because of a torn meniscus in his left knee, is another question mark. He did, however, look strong in his last outing, allowing one run in six innings against the Cubs on Friday.

Depth has been the key for the Braves' rotation all season, as none of the starters have more than 15 wins. The late-season injuries and poor performance of Ortiz hint at potential troubles against Houston hitters but these starters have actually been a lot better in September than those with St. Louis and Los Angeles.

3. Cardinals
Carpenter was receiving Cy Young mention before experiencing pain traced to nerve damage in his biceps. He could return for the NLCS, but St. Louis will miss him in its series against Los Angeles.

With Carpenter out, Woody Williams becomes the Cardinals' No. 1 starter. Williams is a guy has a 4.18 ERA and was so discouraged by his early start this season that he considered retiring. Jason Marquis, Matt Morris and Jeff Suppan, the staff leader with 16 victories, will follow Williams.

Those four pitchers combined for a 4.75 ERA in September, with Morris the biggest concern. La Russa had considered him for Game 1, but decided he couldn't risk it after Morris allowed six runs in four innings against Milwaukee last Thursday. The Cardinals must watch him closely because of what they're calling tendinitis in his shoulder.

Considered baseball's best team for most of the second half, St. Louis will be favored against Los Angeles but is hardly considered invincible.

"The rotation is not good enough; 104 wins isn't good enough, everything isn't good enough,'' an exasperated Morris told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. "All the speculation about who's pitching and the rotation is not good and there's no names and there's no dominator and blah, blah, blah. It just really means nothing to us. It really shouldn't mean anything to anyone.''

4. Dodgers
With its starting rotation imploding after injuries to Brad Penny and Wilson Alvarez, Los Angeles didn't wrap up its playoff spot until Saturday's seven-run, ninth-inning rally against San Francisco. It's hard to see the Dodgers regaining their form in the playoffs, as a fragile rotation must neutralize the Cardinals' loaded lineup.

That's a tall order considering none of the Dodgers were among the 19 NL pitchers who won 14 or more games. Manager Jim Tracy will call on Jose Lima, Jeff Weaver, Odalis Perez and Kaz Ishii, who combined to go 4-8 with a 4.83 ERA in 22 starts after August. Perez is probably the most talented member of this staff, but he somehow managed to win only seven of 31 starts while compiling a 3.25 ERA.

We can guarantee that the subject of the failed negotiations to acquire Randy Johnson will surface once or twice during the Dodgers' postseason, however brief that might be.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.