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Astros line up their three aces

Astros line up their three aces

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ST. LOUIS -- What a difference a year makes in the National League Championship Series.

The Houston Astros have their starting pitching all set up for the first three games with Andy Pettitte, Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens all rested and tossing on their regular days against the defending NL champion Cardinals.

"That's great, but we have to play the games and no one knows how we're going to pitch," Pettitte said on Tuesday as both teams worked out at Busch Stadium. "No question, though, it's all lined up for us."

Last year, because of an elbow injury to Pettitte and the fact that their NL Division Series against the Braves went five games, manager Phil Garner had to go with Brandon Backe, Pete Munro and Clemens. The Astros lost the first two games at Busch Stadium and ultimately the series in seven games. Munro has since been dispatched and pitched this season for Triple-A Columbus in the Yankees organization.

This year, the Astros defeated the Braves in four games, although Sunday's finale went 18-innings with Clemens tossing the last three.

"Well, that's the advantage of winning on Sunday, obviously, and it was nice to be able to get The Rocket out there for just a little tuneup for his start," Garner said. "You know, you have to feel good. These are our big guys. If I had known it was this easy to manage with guys like Clemens and Pettitte, I'd have gotten them a long time ago."

Of course, this year the Cardinals have Chris Carpenter available to pitch Game 1 instead of Woody Williams, the right-hander who started last year's NLCS opener and later signed as a free agent with the Padres. Carpenter missed the 2004 postseason with a nerve problem in his right arm. Williams won the opener, pitching six innings of four-run, four-hit ball.

Last year, Williams was followed by Matt Morris, Jeff Suppan and Jason Marquis. Clemens beat Suppan in Game 3 and Marquis lasted only four innings as the Astros came from behind to win Game 4.

This year, Cards manager Tony La Russa has Mark Mulder, Morris and either Suppan or Marquis tentatively slated to follow Carpenter to complete the rotation for the first four games. It depends upon whether the left-handed Mulder is sufficiently recovered from taking a line drive off his left shoulder during Game 3 of the NLDS last Thursday against San Diego.

"Well, they are outstanding," La Russa said about the Astros' Big Three. "They are every bit worth the reputation they have earned. All three are very different, so they present different problems for you. But we look at it two ways: One, we're going to match up each of those guys with an outstanding pitcher of our own, so it's not like Houston is going to have a lot of fun hitting against our pitchers.

"And two, what we've done over and over again for a while now is the eight guys who play are going to take their at-bats. If their pitchers are really sharp, it will be hard to score and if they make a mistake or two, maybe we'll break through, but that's the way you play the games."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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