Notes: Comfortable as underdogs

Notes: Comfortable as underdogs

ST. LOUIS -- Back in early August, the Astros were in the process of taking two of three from the Diamondbacks in Arizona when Morgan Ensberg referred to his club as "basically a bunch of nobodys" who were surprising some people by jumping back into the Wild Card race.

More than 2 1/2 months later, surprise! The Astros are not only in the postseason, but advanced past the Braves to make their second straight National League Championship Series appearance versus the Cardinals.

Times have changed. They went from a laughingstock at 15-30 in May to a playoff club, and many national media outlets are picking them to beat the Cardinals. The Astros apparently have the edge because of their pitching -- Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt.

The Astros find the observations flattering, but quite frankly, most would prefer to keep the underdog label.

"I'm more comfortable with it," manager Phil Garner said. "That's the way I've been for a number of years. But there is a certain gratification for guys to be recognized. Obviously, Pettitte and Clemens were going to be recognized. But for Oswalt to be recognized, to recognize our bullpen, there's a certain gratification."

"We are the underdogs," general manager Tim Purpura said. "We've got something to prove here. This is the team that went to the World Series last year, not us. This is the team that won 100 games this year, not us.

"Certainly, we feel good about our chances. But predictions are just predictions. You still have to play at least nine innings. Sometimes, 18."

Ensberg, who hits cleanup behind Lance Berkman and in front of Mike Lamb, still feels his team is relatively unknown, which is OK with him, considering this isn't a senior class picking the homecoming king.

"When I say 'nobodys,' I mean as far as a popularity contest goes," Ensberg said. "I think we have outstanding ballplayers. When you put it down on paper, people don't know who we are. But that's OK."

Good move: In July, Chris Burke was the subject of most of the speculation surrounding who was the most likely to be dealt by the trade deadline.

Purpura had no desire to trade the former No. 1 draft pick, but he could have been tempted if the right offer came along. In hindsight, the Astros are probably lucky that deal never materialized.

"One of the things I said to this club on June 1 was, 'In this organization, we breed winners,'" Purpura said. "That is part of our goal, to develop winning Major League players. Chris Burke is a winning Major League player."

Burke, who has less than a year of big league experience, won the series-clinching NLDS game for Houston on Sunday, knocking a homer in the 18th inning to beat the Braves, 7-6. Purpura wasn't at all surprised it was Burke who came through with the game-winner.

"He doesn't have the tenure the other players have, but he has the desire, and he wants to be the guy up in that situation," Purpura said. "There's a lot of guys that want no part of it. He does. It's refreshing to everybody."

Pay up, lefty: Starting pitchers usually don't like to talk with reporters on the day they pitch, so the story about a certain wager made between Clemens and Pettitte was rehashed on Wednesday in a completely one-sided fashion.

According to Clemens, Pettitte approached him during Spring Training and bragged about what a good hitter he was going to be this season. What's more, Pettitte said he would end the season with a better batting average than Clemens.

To make it interesting, Clemens challenged Pettitte to put his money where is mouth was in the form of a friendly wager.

The results weren't even close. Clemens ended the season with a .207 average, logging 12 hits in 58 at-bats. Pettitte didn't do so well. He had five hits in 62 at-bats for a whopping .081 average.

Advantage: Clemens.

"I was on my way to a .300 year, but then Andy had to go to national TV with it and exploit my hitting," Clemens said. "I went downhill from there, but I hung on until the end."

The payoff? Dinner on Pettitte, in Atlanta, during the Division Series. Of course, this was not an intimate dinner for two. Guests were invited. And urged to eat up.

"Mr. Biggio knows how to order a nice bottle of wine, let's just put it that way," Clemens said, whose attitude toward this Pettitte-sponsored dinner party was, "the more, the merrier."

"I asked a couple people out on the hallway if they were hungry, too," Clemens said.

No more Knute: Garner doesn't like to go overboard with motivational speeches, but he did call a team meeting or two (or three or four) this season when things were really, really bad in the beginning, and really, really good toward the end.

Garner recently cleaned out his desk and found a stack of notes containing items he jotted down after giving some of those speeches. He read over the notes with his wife, had a chuckle, and pitched them.

He's also 86-ing the speeches for the rest of the postseason.

"I promised no more moving speeches," Garner said. "I think they'd bar me from the clubhouse if I tried to give another speech."

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.