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Retooled Astros off to good start

By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 8, 2001


The most improved team in the NL did not spend millions on free agents in the winter. The major off-season acquisition was an oft-traded catcher who hit seven home runs in 2000.

What the Astros have done to transform into playoff contenders is simple. They got healthy. And a little younger.

The Astros are off to their best start since 1987 and already have gone a long way toward erasing memories of last year's 90 losses.

"The most important thing for this team is to have Billy Wagner getting saves again," manager Larry Dierker said. "The second most important thing is having the real Craig Biggio healthy the whole year."

Through the first four games of 2001, Biggio was 11-for-19 and Wagner had pitched two shutout innings and collected one save.

Biggio, 35, missed the final two months of 2000 after tearing ligaments in his left knee, ending his worst season in more than a decade. A seven-time All-Star, Biggio was hearing whispers that his best days were long past.

"The sad part about it was I wasn't able to finish the season," Biggio said. "When you are able to play a full year, maybe your numbers can take care of themselves. I started to feel really good, started swinging the bat well the last three weeks.

"You have to take the good and the bad -- and last year was a bad year. All you can do is chalk it up, remember from it, and try and get better the next year."

Biggio began 2001 with a career-high five hits on opening day. Since then, he has added two of doubles and a home run.

"He's on a mission, and I think he wanted to prove that he's healthy," Dierker said.

Wagner also has proven he has returned to health. One of the league's top closers from 1997-99, he missed most of last season after elbow surgery.

In his first two appearances of 2001, Wagner was hitting 97-98 mph on radar guns.

"I've had good doctors and the good Lord has blessed me many times to have a good left arm," Wagner said. "It doesn't surprise me I'm back out there the same as I was when I left."

The Astros also have remade the left side of their infield. Gone are 37-year-old third baseman Ken Caminiti and 34-year-old shortstop Tim Bogar. In their places are Chris Truby, who hit homers in the first three games of the season, and Julio Lugo, who has been hitting leadoff. The younger lineup also includes 25-year-old Lance Berkman full time in leftfield.

The rotation is still somewhat shaky, but the Astros did bring in some off-season help with Kent Bottenfield and catcher Brad Ausmus, who is considered a premier handler of pitchers.

The early season could be critical for the Astros, who are waiting for Moises Alou and Shane Reynolds to return from the disabled list. Houston benefits from the unbalanced schedule with 12 of its first 15 games against Milwaukee and Pittsburgh.

A quick start might conjure up the confidence of Houston teams that won three division titles from 1997-99.

So far, the Astros are on target.

IRON FANS: Cleveland's recently ended streak of 455 consecutive sellouts is one of the most remarkable achievements in baseball history. Consider that the record for consecutive sellouts was 65 by the Orioles in 1992-93.

AROUND THE HORN: The No. 41 patch being worn by the Braves is in honor of Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews, who died this year. ... The Rays are not the only Florida team with attendance problems. The Marlins drew 8,493 for their third game of the season ... Teams should submit their requests early to open the 2002 season against Kansas City. The Royals have lost 13 of 16 openers. Overall, Kansas City has a .333 winning percentage on opening day, the worst in the majors. ... Hideo Nomo's next start after a no-hitter against the Orioles? On Tuesday against the Orioles.

BAD OMEN IN TEXAS: What do you get for the highest-paid player in the game? Usually, not as much as you would expect. According to a study done by the Dallas Morning News, the last time a team with the game's highest-paid player reached the playoffs was the Mets with Gary Carter in 1986. Good luck, A-Rod.

TOUCHE: With a 6-0 lead in the seventh inning and Mike Hampton on the mound, the Rockies attempted a stolen base against the Cardinals.

"I think we had more confidence in his pitching than they did," St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said in jest. "I don't know who they thought was going to score six runs against him the way he was pitching today."

La Russa said he was not disturbed, although he seemed to send a warning. "You can do what you want," he said, "just as long as you have a good memory when it's done to you."

RUNNING WILD: Brian L. Hunter provided the winning run against the Marlins on Tuesday by scoring from second on a sacrifice fly to deep center. The move even caught Phillies manager Larry Bowa by surprise. "I was like, "No! ... No! ... No! ... No! ... Yeah, all right!' " Bowa said.

-- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

As time goes by

We all know the shortest span between a pitcher's no-hitters -- Johnny Vander Meer produced back-to-back gems four days apart in 1938. But what is the longest span between no-hitters? Not surprisingly, the mark is held by Nolan Ryan, who has pitched more no-hitters than anyone in history. Ryan pitched his first in 1973 and his seventh in 1991. The longest dry spell for Ryan was between Nos. 5 and 6. Hideo Nomo, who pitched his second no-no on Wednesday, is one of 18 pitchers with multiple no-hitters since 1900 but is one of six to have gone four years or more between no-hitters.

(PITCHER, NO-HITTER, NO-HITTER, DIFFERENCE)

Nolan Ryan Sept. 26, 1981, June 11, 1990 8 years, 8 months

Cy Young Sept. 18, 1897, May 5, 1904 6 years, 7 months

Nolan Ryan June 1, 1975, Sept. 26, 1981 6 years, 3 months

Bob Feller April 16, 1940, April 30, 1946 6 years, 14 days

Jim Bunning July 20, 1958, June 21, 1964 5 years, 11 months

Bob Forsch April 16, 1978, Sept. 26, 1983 5 years, 5 months

Bob Feller April 30, 1946, July 1, 1951 5 years, 2 months

Hideo Nomo Sept. 17, 1996, April 4, 2001 4 years, 6 months

Cy Young May 5, 1904, June 30, 1908 4 years, 1 month

-- Compiled by John Romano.

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