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Astros singed, but not scared

10/24/2005 - Houston Astros

CHICAGO -- The sounds emanating from the Houston Astros clubhouse late Sunday night were the typical closing credits of getaway night on the road.

Chris Burke, Mike Gallo, Dan Wheeler and Eric Bruntlett sat down to a postgame meal of chicken and crab legs, and their utensils clanked over the rustle of TV cameramen jockeying for position in front of teammate Brad Lidge's locker.

Zippers zipped, briefcase locks clicked shut and, in an adjacent room, an equipment manager smacked spikes together to dislodge mud from a long, cold, unfulfilling evening on Chicago's south side.

The only missing element was the oppressive, morgue-like silence that envelops a team with a crushed spirit. Not for this Houston team. Not this year.

As anyone who lives and dies with the Astros knows, they survived a 15-30 start to make the playoffs as a wild card this season and then overcame a potentially devastating Albert Pujols home run off Lidge to eliminate St. Louis in the National League Championship Series. Last year they went down 0-2 to the Cardinals on the road in the NLCS only to win three straight games in Houston to push the Cardinals to the brink.

These guys aren't comfortable unless you tie them to the railroad tracks and dare them to wriggle free. It's just their nature.

"Maybe this is where we draw upon the 15-30," said third baseman Morgan Ensberg. "We've definitely had our backs much more against the wall than we do now. We were facing virtual elimination in the middle of May. This team is really resilient, and we're going to make it real tough on the White Sox."

The Astros shook off 43 years of not-quites to make their first World Series, but the first two legs haven't produced storylines worth waiting for. In the series opener, the Astros struck out five times in the final two innings against relievers Neal Cotts and Bobby Jenks to go down meekly in a 5-3 loss.

Game 2 was even worse. Pinch-hitter Jose Vizcaino produced a tremendously uplifting two-run single off Jenks to pull the Astros even at 6-6 in the top of the ninth, only to watch helplessly from his shortstop position as pop-gun hitting left fielder Scott Podsednik untied it with a solo shot off Lidge in the bottom of the inning.

The last time a combatant went from high-fives to the emotional depths this quickly, Al Gore was prematurely celebrating his victory over George W. Bush in Florida in 2000.

"It was too bad I could only enjoy it for 10 minutes," Vizcaino said.

Fact is, when the Astros wake up in their own beds Monday and have time to take inventory, they'll realize they didn't play very well in the first two games in Chicago. In an incredibly sloppy second inning Sunday, Ensberg misplayed a hot shot at third, Burke misjudged a ball at the fence and Craig Biggio dropped a pop fly in short right field to allow A.J. Pierzynski to score from third base.

The bullpen trio of Wheeler, Chad Qualls and Lidge, such a strong point during the regular season, crapped out for five runs in 1 2/3 innings against the White Sox.

"It's amazing to me that we were close in these games, because we were playing so poorly," Ensberg said. "I feel like everything is going the White Sox's way and we're still in there. There's a lot of room for optimism."

One nettlesome question remains to be answered for the Astros. Roger Clemens, who pitched two innings in the series opener, remains dicey for his scheduled Game 5 start on Thursday because of a hamstring injury. If he can go, it will be strictly on guts and adrenaline. If he can't, manager Phil Garner will start either Wandy Rodriguez or Ezequiel Astacio in his place.

But the Astros can take heart in several factors. First, Roy Oswalt will be starting Game 3 on Tuesday night. He's won 20 games in each of the last two seasons and put the clamps on the Cardinals in the NLCS clincher.

Houston's hitters always feel their pulses quicken upon arrival at Minute Maid Park. During the regular season, the Astros batted .271 with 93 homers and 360 runs scored at home, compared to .242 with 68 homers and 333 runs scored on the road.

It's no accident that the Astros went 53-28 in their home park. Among the 30 big-league clubs, only the Boston Red Sox posted a better record at home this season. And the Astros know that Texas fans will be raucous when the series resumes.

"We're so tough at home, it's unbelievable," Ensberg said. "I can't wait until we get in front of our fans, because the sound of our crowd at home is unlike anything I've ever heard in my life. It's a big distraction. It is huge."

Finally, the Houston players can take comfort in the knowledge that their extremities will be fully thawed by Tuesday evening. When asked about the 40-degree temperatures and freezing rain that fell Sunday night in Chicago, Astros left fielder Lance Berkman smiled.

"If you can't produce 60-degree temperatures, I don't know if you should be able to host a World Series," Berkman joked.

Maybe it's the knowledge that no one expected them to make the playoffs or get past the Cardinals. Where the Astros are concerned, the expectation is that something is always bound to go wrong. So what do the Houston players have to lose from here?

"We are not pleased with being down 0-2, but at the same time, we're not scared," Berkman said.

There is, most definitely, a difference.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.