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Notes: Burke back in center

Notes: Burke back in center

HOUSTON -- Why mess with a good thing?

Although the Houston Astros did not exactly tear the cover off the ball during their Game 3 win over the Cardinals, they apparently played well enough to merit using the same lineup for Game 4.

That means Chris Burke remained in center field, batting second, Mike Lamb played first base, batting fifth, and Willy Taveras watched the game from the bench for the second day in a row.

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Manager Phil Garner noted how well Taveras took the news of the demotion, however temporary.

"It's a tribute to him -- he shouldn't want to sit," Garner said. "This was a difficult call with Willy. He's played well and played championship ball. He's still going to end up being in the ballgame at some point.

"He will continue to be our everyday center fielder for a number of years to come. I also think that as my good friend and mentor Chuck Tanner says, 'You're here to win for the Houston Astros organization,' and it transcends any one player.

"Not that we want to trash any one player -- we don't want to do that to Willy, because he's the key reason we've gotten here and we're going to count on him, perhaps in today's game, maybe tomorrow's game, in a big way. So the trick for me to do is to keep him ready and able to go out there and do what he does well, too."

The decision to play Burke over Taveras wasn't as difficult as the one Garner had to make concerning Jose Vizcaino, who has a whopping .619 batting average against Game 4 starter Jeff Suppan. Vizcaino has 13 hits in 21 at-bats versus the Cardinals righty.

But Garner opted to stick with shortstop Adam Everett, who is 4-for-9 verus Suppan.

"Viz has some great numbers, and those are numbers that fit," Garner said. "But Adam's hit him a little bit, too. It's not like Adam's had 20 at-bats and no hits off him."

"I was hoping [to play], but it happens," Vizcaino said. "It happened during the season when we were facing [Cubs right-hander] Mark Prior. I was hitting well over .400 with two home runs and I didn't play.

"You can't go against something that is working. We're winning, and that's the only thing I care about."

All the right moves: Garner has been praised profusely throughout the postseason for making unconventional strategic decisions, all of which appear to have worked.

Garner appreciates the accolades, but he emphasized that a manager is only as good as his players. That might explain why he had just one winning season during his managerial run with the Brewers and Tigers from 1992-2002.

"I appreciate when people recognize that you're doing a good job," Garner said. "But it gets out of whack. It gets beyond what I consider reasonable.

"I like to be considered part of the success of this team, but I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, the reason. When you have good players, and you give them a chance to do something, they're going to perform. That's what these guys have done."

Eighth-inning challenge: When Octavio Dotel was a setup man for the Astros in 2003, he often said that the eighth inning is often harder to pitch than the ninth, because when a team has a good closer, the opponent looks at the eighth frame as its last realistic chance to score.

Also, Dotel said, the heart of the order comes around more in the eighth than the ninth, making the task much more challenging for the setup man than the closer.

Asked about this theory after the Astros' 4-3 win on Saturday, Chad Qualls chuckled and admitted there may be some validity to it.

"We kid [Brad] Lidge about that all the time," Qualls said. "We say, 'We'll keep facing the [Nos.] three, four, five [hitters], you can have the six, seven, eight, nine.'"

Qualls, normally the seventh-inning setup man to Dan Wheeler, pitched two innings on Saturday. He was so dominant in the seventh that Garner decided to stick with him in the eighth.

"It should not be concerned as a mark against Wheeler," Garner said. "It's just that Qualls was throwing so good. His ball was just exploding. I said, 'We'll just give him another one.'"

Offensively speaking: A lot has been made of the Astros' 2-for-23 mark with runners in scoring position during the NLCS, and the fact that they still began Game 4 with a 2-1 advantage over the Cardinals.

Because the playoffs are more about pitching and defense than hitting, Garner isn't moved either way by the 2-for-23 stat. What amazes him is that fact that the Astros are winning games without much help from No. 3 hitter Morgan Ensberg, who is 1-for-10 in the NLCS. Cleanup hitter Lance Berkman is a respectable 4-for-12, but he's also struggling with runners on base.

"If you told me that Ensberg and Lance were going to be a non-event the first three games and we'd win two, I might say, 'That can't happen,'" Garner said. "One of the two were going to have to do something."

Garner suspects Ensberg still hasn't recovered from the hand injury he suffered through during the September stretch run, and that could in part explain the lack of punch in the middle of the order.

"Lance is a good hitter," Garner said. "Morgan's becoming a good hitter, but I don't think he's gotten his stroke back since the injury. He's just not really swung that bat. Even earlier in the playoffs when he drove in runs, he still did not have the swing that he had. So a little bit's been that Morgan's cooled off, and they've pitched Lance pretty well."

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

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