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Albert Chen
July 26, 2004
Last DitchAfter free agents and trades didn't help, the Astros change managers
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July 26, 2004

Baseball

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Last Ditch
After free agents and trades didn't help, the Astros change managers

New Astros manager Phil Garner is a stark contrast to his predecessor, the curmudgeonly Jimy Williams, who was fired last week. A popular infielder with Houston in the 1980s and a manager with the Brewers and the Tigers from '92 through April 2002, Garner is a fiery leader who is perpetually upbeat and charms the press like a politician. For instance, in the hours before his first game as Astros skipper last Friday, Garner took time to regale members of the media with stories about his days in the minors, playing with Willie Stargell in Pittsburgh, and the day his first son, Eric, was born.

General manager Gerry Hunsicker is banking on Garner, 55, to quickly reverse a fast-sinking team. On May 11 Houston was 21-11 and led the National League Central; since men the club had gone 24-35 through Sunday and fallen 12 games behind the Cardinals, as well as five games out of the NL wild-card race. "The struggles began to weigh on the players," says Hunsicker. "We hope the new leadership can bring a bream of fresh air."

After signing free-agent lefthander Andy Pettitte and luring future Hall of Famer Roger Clemens out of retirement, Houston had enormous expectations entering the season—"the highest the team has ever had," says Hunsicker—and season-ticket sales rose from 15,600 in 2003 to more than 20,000. Then on June 24 the Astros made another significant move when they acquired coveted centerfielder Carlos Beltran from the Royals in a three-team trade ( Houston sent closer Octavio Dotel to Oakland), but at week's end the Astros were just 7-12 since Beltran's arrival. If Houston doesn't move into contention, there is the possibility that Beltran—a free agent after the season who doesn't figure to re-sign with Houston—could be moved again before the July 31 trade deadline. Hunsicker, however, says that trading Beltran "is not in my vocabulary."

As the losses mounted, Williams, 60 and a former manager of the Blue Jays and the Red Sox, became a symbol of the team's failure. When he served as one of the NL coaches at the All-Star Game last week in Houston, Williams was mercilessly booed by the hometown crowd in pregame introductions. "Guys here really liked Jimy as a person," says one player. "But there definitely was a lot of 'What is he thinking?' going on, from his quick hook with starters to constantly moving hitters around at the top and bottom of the lineup."

But all the blame can't be assigned to Williams. A struggling offense was 10th in the league in runs per game (4.46), 12th in homers (89) and tied for eighth in slugging percentage (.416). Houston was on pace to score fewer runs than it had since 1994 and hit fewer homers than it had since '97. "To say our offense has been bad is being kind," says catcher Brad Ausmus, who was hitting .233 with a .287 on-base percentage. Also, having gone on the disabled list twice with arm trouble, Pettitte had made only 11 starts, winning five but only one since May 15.

While Williams was oft-criticized for being stubborn about not benching regulars, Garner shook up the lineup immediately. He dropped first baseman Jeff Bagwell, a career .298 hitter who was batting .268 at the All-Star break, from third to sixth and benched third baseman Morgan Ensberg (.258, three homers) for Jose Vizcaino and then Mike Lamb.

Though Garner had only one winning season in his 10 full years as manager in Milwaukee and Detroit, Hunsicker is a fan of Garner's aggressive style and is confident that Houston can climb back into the race. "We liked [ Garner] because we thought he'd take decisive action when called for," says Hunsicker, who feels a sense of urgency with key players, including Clemens, second baseman Jeff Kent and outfielder Craig Biggio, eligible for free agency after the season. "We don't have time to fool around."

Renovation in Seattle
Mariners' Call-up Is Hammerin'

There's a new face in Seattle, and it resembles a professional wrestler's. Last week, after designating veteran first baseman John Olerud for assignment, the Mariners called up a lumbering 6'4", 270-pound replacement with a shiny bald head and a perfectly trimmed red goatee: Bucky Jacobsen. The 28-year-old slugger had been tearing up the Pacific Coast League, hitting .312 with 26 homers and 86 RBIs in 81 games for Triple A Tacoma.

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