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Outfield or left out for Burke in Game 3?

Outfield or left out for Burke in Game 3?

HOUSTON -- Astros manager Phil Garner wouldn't tip his hand as to whether playoff star Chris Burke will be in the lineup on Saturday for Game 3 of the National League Championship Series at Minute Maid Park.

But when asked who would get a bigger hand during pregame introductions, Burke or Saturday's starter Roger Clemens, Garner dropped quite a hint.

"I don't know about that," Garner said. "But I do know who's going to get booed if [Burke's] not playing tomorrow."

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Garner. So figure the right-handed swinging Burke may start in the outfield against Cardinals right-hander Matt Morris. Burke is the team's hottest postseason hitter, batting .625 (5-for-8) with two homers, a double, triple, four RBIs and four runs scored.

His walk-off homer last Sunday at home in the 18th inning of Game 4 won the first round of the playoffs against the Braves. He then homered in his next at-bat -- a pinch-hit appearance against Chris Carpenter in Wednesday's 5-3 Game 1 loss -- and started against left-hander Mark Mulder on Thursday night when he went 2-for-4 with the triple and a run-scoring single in a 4-1 Astros win.

It's no wonder that he's Houston's darling. But even Burke doesn't know if he's playing on Saturday.

"He hasn't said anything to me yet," Burke said about Garner. "We'll see."

Garner is stuck between using Burke and left-handed hitter Mike Lamb, who is lifetime 5-for-14 against Morris with three homers.

"There are plusses [to starting Burke], not just from an offensive standpoint," Garner said. "Burke is a better defensive player, so there's plusses for that. But Mike Lamb has been swinging the bat well and there are plusses there. When we were winning down the stretch, Lamb was playing. Burke and Lamb both were doing well."

Two years ago this month, it wasn't even a question. Burke was a Double-A player trying to make the U.S. team that was preparing to qualify for the 2004 Summer Olympics in Panama City, Panama.

He ultimately was placed on the roster, giving Burke his first experience in a playoff-type environment and preparing him for his initial Major League postseason.

"That was a situation of high intensity, similar to the playoffs," said Burke, who was a middle infielder on that team. "Obviously, there wasn't as much media coverage or anything like that. Anytime you play in a high-pressure packed game, it prepares you for future circumstances. The playoffs are very similar."

That tournament was rife with tropical rain delays, transportation problems and rules adjustments by the host committee. One country, the Bahamas, didn't show up. Team USA swept through first-round play undefeated and was matched up in its first elimination game with 0-3 Mexico, which should already have been ousted from the tournament.

It all collapsed for manager Frank Robinson's team in that game, a 2-1 loss in which the U.S. had the tying and winning runs on second and third with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning and couldn't push either of them in. The U.S. was eliminated and failed to qualify for the Olympic baseball tournament for the first time.

Burke is among a group of players from that team already making an impact in the Majors, including Cleveland's Grady Sizemore, Minnesota's Joe Mauer, Texas' Gerald Laird, Oakland's Justin Duchscherer, Milwaukee's J.J. Hardy, Arizona's Brian Bruney and Seattle's Jeremy Reed, just to name a few.

"For me, the way that ended was a low point and, obviously, a time of a lot of confusion as far as what happened to us," Burke said. "I'll always regret the way things worked out down there and, unfortunately, we've got to live it."

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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