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Future looks bright for Astros

Future looks bright for Astros

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HOUSTON -- The Houston Astros jokingly call their 2005 season "The Miracle at Minute Maid," and in many ways it was a miraculous run for an overacheiving team that came back from a 15-30 record to the first World Series appearance in franchise history.

Though they were swept by the Chicago White Sox, the Astros took no small measure of pride in their achievements and are already looking ahead to next year.

"To start off 15-30 and end up in the World Series is pretty amazing, to say the least," Astros general manager Tim Purpura said. "All along, we believed in our young guys and our veterans, but we came up six runs short.

"In some ways that's hard to swallow. We could have won any one of these four games. Even some of the folks on the White Sox said the same thing. It just makes you more resolute to work hard in the offseason and get back here. We'll be better prepared next year to get back here."

The 1-0 loss in Game 4 on Wednesday night underscored what must be done to improve the team for next season. Against Chicago's staff, the Houston offense resembled the anemic unit that contributed to the 15-30 start rather than the one that helped propel the team to the Fall Classic.

Against the White Sox, the Astros hit only .203 and just .204 (10-for-49) with runners in scoring position. The Astros stranded 34 baserunners. The White Sox pitchers shut down slugger Morgan Ensberg, who hit .111 in the series, including 1-for-13 with six strikeouts since his Game 2 home run.

Ensberg wasn't the only Houston regular to have a disappointing World Series. With the exception of Lance Berkman, the lineup did not fare well.

"Considering how many times we got shut out this year, it's probably not a surprise that it would end with another one," second baseman Craig Biggio said. "But I'm proud of this team. We really fought hard to get this far and we had chances to win every game. It just didn't work out. I think fate or destiny or whatever you want to call it was more on their side than ours."

The loss to the White Sox doesn't erase what these Astros accomplished.

"Well, we started out very poorly, about as rotten as you could be for the first 45 ballgames, and then we found a way to turn it around. Some players started doing really well," Astros manager Phil Garner said. "And our pitching was pretty solid all year long and our offense started to figure out a way to win a ballgame and we played pretty well.

"I would say, as I told the team, I thought we won as a team, we lost as a team. Everybody in our clubhouse had something to do with us getting here and it's a pretty good story, doggone good story. I'm proud of those guys. We played hard. We came together as a team. We never did fracture apart."

Said veteran Jeff Bagwell: "I'm proud of the guys more than anything else. I think this team did a [heck] of a job. It was out there for dead for half a season and guys believed in each other and came back. Guys should be proud of themselves for getting this far. I'm disappointed. You get here, you might as well win this thing. They just played a little bit better than we did. Every game could have gone either way, they were just a little bit better than we were."

Bagwell, who called this season "the most educational" he's had in his 15 years in the Major Leagues, must look to the future as well. Limited to a pinch-hitting role after midseason shoulder surgery, Bagwell's status next year will have a significant impact on which direction Purpura and the Astros take with regards to improving the roster.

"If this is the last game I play, then that's the way it's supposed to be and I can't think anything else," Bagwell said. "But I don't want to think like that. I want to think that I'm going to play next year. That's my plan. I was just laughing with Lance [Berkman], saying, 'This is great, we lost, now I've got to start rehab on Friday.'"

Bagwell will work during the offseason with a goal toward arriving in Spring Training ready to resume his role as starting first baseman.

Bagwell's status will impact more than just the lineup. He is owed $18 million next season and the club holds the option on his 2007 contract for $18 million or a $7 million buyout.

There are other considerations as well. The Astros need offense, but have $65 million committed to five players. Besides Bagwell, Berkman is due $14.5 million next season, left-hander Andy Pettitte will make $17.5 million, right-hander Roy Oswalt is under contract for $11 million and Biggio agreed to a $4 million extension for the 2006 season.

If Bagwell returns to form, that would help bolster the offense. If not, the Astros will have to look elsewhere for another bat, and how much they would be able to spend will be further impacted on whether Roger Clemens decides to return for another season or retire. Clemens made $18 million in 2005.

"Our goal is to come back and win the World Series next year," Astros owner Drayton McLane Jr. said. "We'll start working on that [Thursday] morning. I'm still elated at what we acheived. We acheieved a milestone that the Houston Astros franchise has never seen. The last 10 days is the most enthusiastic I've ever seen Houston and Texas.

"To [White Sox owners] Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn, they've owned their franchise 25 years. I've only been here 13. I've feel like I've been admitted to college, but it took me 13 years to graduate."

Pettitte compared the last two years to his days with the New York Yankees. The lefty said building a World Series winner is a process.

"Last year we took a big step by winning in the playoffs for the first time," Pettitte said. "This year was another huge step. We've got a taste of it now. Now it's the same old story, try to keep your club together and look forward to next year."

Some of the pieces of this club aren't going anywhere, at least not right away. Besides the five under contract, several key Astros such as Ensberg, shortstop Adam Everett, pitcher Brandon Backe, closer Brad Lidge and outfielders Willy Taveras and Chris Burke are under club control.

Purpura has decisions to make about such veterans as catcher Brad Ausmus, infielders Mike Lamb and Jose Vizcaino and outfielder Orlando Palmeiro. For the most part, the roster should be largely intact.

"I don't think they have a choice [but to keep the club together]," Berkman said. "We have a good young nucleus of players. Hopefully we'll be back next year and maybe build on this."

Lidge is among those optimistic the Astros have a bright future ahead. With a number of emerging young players, players that made significant contributions this season, things are looking up in Houston.

"This has been fantastic for us. We really can't hang our heads," Lidge said. "We got to the World Series and that's the first time we've ever done it. It leaves a bitter taste in your mouth [to lose], but getting this far was such a remarkable accomplishment. We got to the World Series and that's pretty amazing."

Indeed it was. But the Astros want everyone to know they aren't finished.

"Getting here is not the prize. We want to win the World Series," Purpura said. "This has been great for the city, it's been great for Texas. But we're going to start working at 9 a.m. tomorrow morning to get back."

Jim Molony is a writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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