MANAGER PHILGARNER fourth season with Astros

THE THREE dirtiest words around Astros camp this year: World BaseballClassic.

Last March,nearly four weeks before he normally would pitch in a meaningful game, closerBrad Lidge was called on to close a first-round game against Mexico in theinaugural WBC. Those close to Lidge say that in his haste to prepare for thepreseason tournament he sped up his delivery and never found his normal rhythmduring the season. "The [WBC] set him back, no question about it," saysHall of Famer Nolan Ryan, who as a friend to Lidge summoned him to Houston inlate January to help with his mechanics. "Pitchers need time to have anormal spring training."

Lidge went on tohave a 1--5 season with six blown saves and a 5.28 ERA, and the Astros finished11/2 games behind the division-winning Cardinals. But Lidge chooses his wordscarefully when discussing the impact of the tournament on his 2006 performance."I won't use that, or anything else, as an excuse," he says. "I gotinto some bad habits early last year. My front shoulder flew open early, whichmeant hitters saw the ball longer and my control was way off."

A return to hisold form--in 2004 and '05 Lidge had a combined 2.07 ERA and converted a totalof 71 of 79 save opportunities--is crucial to Houston's playoff hopes. With analready sketchy starting staff made weaker by the defection of lefthander AndyPettitte to the Yankees and the uncertainty of whether Roger Clemens willreturn for another season, a deep bullpen is more important to the Astros thanin recent years. If Lidge gets off to another bad start and manager Phil Garnerhas to move Dan Wheeler (1.11 ERA after the All-Star break) into the closer'sjob, one of the best setup men in the majors will have to be replaced.Houston's staff isn't deep enough to survive the domino effect that anotherLidge collapse would set off.

Three seasonsago, relying on his fastball and slider, Lidge emerged as one of the game's topclosers. He should have been even better last year with the addition of a cutfastball, but no matter how hard he tried--in side sessions and duringgames--he never regained his command. "Starters can experiment in gameswhen they're having trouble," general manager Tim Purpura says."There's no such thing as trial and error with a closer, because almostevery pitch he throws can decide a game."

If you're lookingfor a hopeful sign of a rebound, consider that Lidge's strikeout rate (12.5 pernine innings) remained excellent last year. But compared to 2005 Lidge gave upfive more homers and 13 more walks in '06, when he pitched only 4 1/3 moreinnings. At the same time Houston went from winning 89 games and reaching theplayoffs two years ago to winning seven fewer games last season.

Just as hedoesn't blame the WBC for his struggles, Lidge also denies that his playoffmeltdown in '05--when the Cards' Albert Pujols slammed a game-winning homer offhim in Game 5 of the NLCS--weighed on him last year. "As long as I'm thecloser here, I'm going to face Pujols five to eight times a year," saysLidge. "He's a great hitter. He's going to win some, I'm going to win some.I can promise you, I don't even think about that at bat unless someone bringsit up to me."

At Ryan's ElitePitchers Camp at Minute Maid Park, Houston pitching instructors Dave Wallaceand Dewey Robinson also worked with Lidge and monitored his progress. Whilepracticing his mechanics, Lidge focused on making sure that he didn't begin hismove toward home plate until his back pocket faced the batter. "That's howI know I'm staying back and not rushing," he says.

In springtraining Lidge remained focused on mechanics, not blowing away hitters."Brad will rebound, I'm sure of it," says Ryan. If he doesn't, theAstros won't either. --P.K.

CONSIDER THIS
a modest proposal ...

Catcher BradAusmus once provided enough defense to make up for a lack of stick, but thosedays are over, and the Astros would be better off relegating him to a benchrole. Ausmus's Value Over Replacement Player (VORP)--a Baseball Prospectusmetric that calculates the number of runs a player contributes above those thatthe average Triple A replacement at the same position would--was --17.5 lastyear, one of the lowest of any regular in baseball. His throwing arm hasdeclined too; Ausmus nailed only 22% of prospective base stealers in '06.Humberto Quintero, expected to be Ausmus's backup, looks like the bestcandidate to replace him. PECOTA projects that Quintero would produce 17 moreruns than Ausmus given the same amount of playing time, and his work behind theplate is considered nearly as good.

THE LINEUP
PROJECTED ROSTER WITH 2006 STATISTICS

CRAIG BIGGIO 2B        
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 175 .246 21 62 3
CHRIS BURKE CF        
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 202 .276 9 40 11
LANCE BERKMAN 1B        
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
S-L 11 .315 45 136 3
CARLOS LEE* LF        
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 9 .300 37 116 19
MORGAN ENSBERG 3B        
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 153 .235 23 58 1
LUKE SCOTT RF        
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 125 .336 10 37 2
ADAM EVERETT SS        
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 267 .239 6 59 9
BRAD AUSMUS C        
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 318 .230 2 39 3


BENCH          
MIKE LAMB INF        
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
L-R 231 .307 12 45 2
JASON LANE OF-1B        
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R-L 256 .201 15 45 1
MARK LORETTA* INF        
B-T PVR BA HR RBI SB
R 292 .285 5 59 4


ROTATION              
PITCHER   PVR W L K WHIP ERA
RH Roy Oswalt 2 15 8 166 1.17 2.98
RH Jason Jennings* 101 9 13 142 1.37 3.78
RH Woody Williams* 77 12 5 72 1.29 3.65
LH Wandy Rodriguez 171 9 10 98 1.60 5.64
RH Fernando Nieve 213 3 3 70 1.33 4.20


BULLPEN              
PITCHER   PVR W L SV WHIP ERA
RH Brad Lidge 85 1 5 32 1.40 5.28
RH Dan Wheeler 149 3 5 9 1.15 2.52
RH Chad Qualls 164 7 3 0 1.17 3.76


* New acquisition B-T: Bats-throws
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 77)

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THE NUMBERSLIE
.336
Batting average for rightfielder Luke Scott in 214 at bats as a rookie lastseason. The 28-year-old Scott, who had never batted .300 in five years in theminor leagues, was helped by an abnormally high .385 BABIP (Batting Average onBalls In Play). Expect his BABIP to drop closer to the league average of .301with a corresponding drop in his overall average.

PHOTOTOM SZCZERBOWSKI/US PRESSWIREFINE-TUNED To regain his old form--a development crucial to the team's hopes--Lidge spent a week working on mechanics with Nolan Ryan. PHOTOICON SMI (AUSMUS) PHOTOJOHN IACONO (LEE)Lee

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)