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Back to the drawing board for Houston

10/27/2005 - Houston Astros

HOUSTON -- In the Houston Astros clubhouse -- the one where they weren't making parade arrangements, ducking champagne corks or collecting commemorative Wheaties boxes -- the players and coaches all knew that life would go on today. It's just a quieter, more contemplative brand of existence.

Hangover-free, as well.

After the White Sox beat the Astros 1-0 Wednesday night to complete a four-game Series sweep, Houston owner Drayton McLane roamed the lunch room and home clubhouse at Minute Maid Park in search of players and staff members to hug and console. You see McLane at his encouraging, energetic best in this type of environment, and you understand how the man made a fortune in the grocery distribution business.

"I've got a few bullet holes in me, but I'll be all right," McLane joked. Then he got down to the heart of the matter: It was great to bring the state of Texas its first World Series, but the goal is to actually win one, and the planning toward that end will begin in earnest, starting today.

"Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn have owned the White Sox for 25 years, and I've owned our franchise for 13,'' McLane said. "I feel like someone who's been admitted to college, and it took me 13 years to graduate.''

On the other side of the clubhouse, the franchise's Butch and Sundance shared their immediate plans. Jeff Bagwell will take a day off, then embark on an offseason rehab program to get his shoulder in shape for a final run next spring. Craig Biggio, his grimy batting helmet stowed for the winter, is going to decompress. With his two sons flanking him at his locker stall, Biggio said he plans to attend a couple of football games and unwind with some deer hunting at his ranch in Texas.

Biggio won't need a breather to appreciate what it meant to appear in his first World Series after 2,564 regular-season games. He felt the chill up and down his spine during pre-game introductions in Chicago last weekend.

"I waited a long time for this, and it was worth the wait,'' Biggio said. "If I never get a chance to go back to the World Series, my career will be complete. There are a lot of guys that have never been here, and I really feel for them. It's a special feeling.''

For a team that waited 43 years for its first World Series appearance, the Astros didn't prolong the suspense. They hit .203 as a team against the White Sox, and failed to score a run in their final 15 innings against Chicago. It was only fitting, Biggio said ruefully, that a Houston team that was shut out a major-league-high 17 times this year generated the biggest, fattest zero of all in its season finale.

Since Jason Lane's eighth-inning double in Game 3, the Astros went hitless in their final 29 at-bats with runners on base. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the only team to have a longer drought with men on base in one World Series was the 1966 Dodgers, who had a 31 at-bat dry spell against Baltimore.

"I think a lot of that had to do with the pressure of being in a World Series,'' said general manager Tim Purpura. "For a lot of these guys, it was a different pressure than anything they had ever faced.''

The winter will be a long one for Astros closer Brad Lidge, who gave up that memorable shot to Albert Pujols in Game 5 of the Championship Series, a climactic solo homer to Scott Podsednik in Game 2 of the World Series and the only run in Chicago's clincher. In the process, Lidge became the first pitcher to lose multiple games in a Series since the Phillies' Mitch Williams went down twice against Toronto in 1993.

Strangely, it was difficult for the Astros to find turning points or moments to regret even though they were outscored by a mere 20-14.

"Every game was tight and went down to the wire,'' Bagwell said. "It was just one of those things where we didn't win. I don't know how else to say it. We didn't play great and we didn't play awful. They just beat us.''

Where do the Astros go from here? The status of two marquee players, Bagwell and Roger Clemens, will be front and center in the Houston papers between now and the start of spring training.

Bagwell, 37, missed 115 games this year after undergoing capsular release surgery on his right shoulder in May, then knocked himself out to make a contribution. He delivered a big hit against Milwaukee in September to aid the Astros in their wild-card run. But life as a pinch-hitter left him with a new appreciation for the Lenny Harrises and John Vander Wals of the world.

"I wish I could have been out there on the field and done a little bit more,'' Bagwell said. "This pinch-hitting is no good. Whatever I've done in my career pales in comparison to what these guys have to do for an entire season.''


The even bigger mystery is, what happens to Clemens? He looked more dominant than ever for much of this season, and was a strong contender to win his eighth Cy Young Award. But Clemens took an emotional hit with the death of his mother in September, and faded down the stretch because of hamstring problems. He lasted only two innings in the opener against the Sox, and his status was iffy had the Series gone beyond four games.

If the Astros harbor any illusions that McLane can schmooze Clemens back into the fold for one more go-round, or Andy Petttitte can convince his buddy to return during a few friendly rounds of golf, it's not going to be that easy. Clemens accomplished something significant this season by helping the Astros reach a World Series, so that carrot no longer exists.

"Everybody in the world knows that he can still pitch,'' Pettitte said, "but I'm not sure if he wants to put his body through what it takes for him to keep going out there. He'll make his own decision. But I'm sure he's going to sit on this for a while.''

Purpura, who came up through the player development ranks, regards the Astros' breakthrough this season as a tribute to the organization's faith in young players and patience in allowing them to develop. The Astros made it to the Series despite the loss of Jeff Kent and Carlos Beltran to free agency and a 15-30 start that made Houstonians very restless in May.

Ultimately, this season marked a coming-out party for Morgan Ensberg, Lane, Willy Taveras and Chris Burke. But unless the old Jeff Bagwell magically reappears, the Astros are going to have to find an established, middle-of-the-order bat. And they're going to have to find it in a very thin market for offensive players.

Roy Oswalt, Lance Berkman and the kids will be around for a while. As for Bagwell, Clemens, Biggio and Pettitte, they know this might have been their final ride.

"Obviously, this team is going to have a facelift in the next couple of years,'' Bagwell said.

The experience was fun while it lasted. For the Houston crew, it just didn't last nearly long enough.

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.