- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 7, 2004

HOUSTON — Two weeks before the final trade deadline of the season, Houston Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker began to wonder if making the playoffs was merely a pipe dream.

The Astros were two games below .500 and seven behind in the race for the NL wild card on Aug.17. With tempting trade offers from contending teams coming in daily, Hunsicker gave serious thought to dismantling the team and preparing for next season.

“I started thinking that maybe it’s not in the cards for us this year,” Hunsicker recalled. “I figured that if we didn’t make a move soon, then it wasn’t going to happen and we had to be realistic.”

Oh, how things have changed in Houston.

The Astros extended their season-high winning streak to 10 games with an 11-5 victory over Cincinnati yesterday, staying within 1 games of wild-card leader Chicago. Idle San Francisco is second in the race, just a game ahead of the Astros.

Houston has been baseball’s best team during the past three weeks, winning 18 of 21 and compiling the best record in the majors since Aug.15.

With a month left in the season, the Astros finally are becoming the playoff contender everyone thought they’d be at the start of the year.

Just much later than expected.

“Earlier, we were trying to figure out what was going on,” Houston left fielder Craig Biggio said. “The team was just in a funk and I’ve never seen a team stay in a funk that long. Now we’re just swinging the bats, we’re more confident.”

Not so long ago, Houston appeared on its way to a disappointing finish after coming in with expectations of the club’s first World Series appearance in its 42-year history.

The Astros were surprisingly punchless on offense, ranking in the bottom third of the majors in scoring despite the midseason acquisition of All-Star center fielder Carlos Beltran. Their highly touted pitching staff struggled as both Andy Pettitte and Wade Miller spent time on the disabled list, with Pettitte eventually undergoing season-ending elbow surgery. Emerging young shortstop Adam Everett also was sidelined with a broken left wrist.

Even with the midseason firing of manager Jimy Williams and hiring of the more fiery Phil Garner, the Astros continued to fall out of the NL Central race and fade in the wild-card chase.

Hunsicker and owner Drayton McLane were lost for answers. Local sports talk radio shows and fan Web sites buzzed over the steady collapse. Fans booed at the slightest hint of trouble during games.

“I’ve never seen a team that basically went into a three-month hibernation,” Hunsicker said. “Especially with the talent we have on this team. There were so many low points, I can’t even pick them out.”

Hunsicker had repeatedly emphasized all season that the club loaded up solely for an autumn finish — Beltran is a free agent, Roger Clemens was coaxed out of retirement, Jeff Kent and Craig Biggio are in the final years of their contracts and Jeff Bagwell is nearing the end of his career.

But with the Astros dropping out of contention and a rebuilding season on the horizon, Hunsicker began to entertain offers from teams still in the playoff hunt. He declined to name the teams, but noted “the rumors that were being speculated about were overdramatized.”

McLane eventually put an end to all of the trade talk.

“I felt all along we were going to be a champion,” McLane said. “I didn’t know how it was going to happen because it looked discouraging. But I knew we were going to make a run.”

The Astros did emerge from their slump, starting with a 5-4 win at Montreal on Aug.15. Since then, Houston has improved to a season-high 11 games over .500 at 74-63.

Houston’s revival has started with the offense. The Astros lead the majors with 160 runs since Aug.15 and have scored six or more runs in a club-record 10 consecutive games — the span of their current win streak.

“I’ve never seen a team this hot,” said Cincinnati pitcher Aaron Harang, who gave up four homers against Houston yesterday.

Harang even counted St. Louis, which has the league’s best record at 92-44 and is 18 games ahead of the Astros in the NL Central, among that list of teams.

“St. Louis has been hot,” Harang said. “But I think they’ve got St. Louis.”

Garner, for one, is just excited to be in a playoff race for the first time in his career. He never even came close to the postseason in his first two stints as a major league manager with Milwaukee and Detroit.

“It looks like if someone throws a punch at us, we get up off the canvas and throw a punch back nearly every time,” Garner said. “These guys are just not going to stay down long.”

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