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Sampson starting with Williams out

Sampson starting with Williams out

HOUSTON -- Astros manager Cecil Cooper called Chris Sampson into his office Saturday morning and said, "I've got good news and bad news. Which do you want first?"

Sampson asked his manager to simply give it to him straight, good and bad. Cooper said, "The bad news is you're going to Corpus tomorrow. The good news is you're our No. 5 starter."

Sampson was anointed the club's fifth starter soon after Woody Williams received the news that he was released, effective immediately. Sampson will throw six or seven innings or 100 pitches for the Double-A Hooks on Sunday in preparation for his first regular season start with the Astros on Friday in Chicago.

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The rotation is set, with Roy Oswalt opening the season Monday in San Diego, followed by Brandon Backe, Wandy Rodriguez, Shawn Chacon and Sampson.

Breaking the good news to Sampson was by far Cooper's easiest task upon arriving to his office Saturday morning. The meeting with Williams was far more difficult, but Cooper said Williams "was a professional about it all. He thanked everybody, we thanked him. We'll just move on."

"I told Woody, 'This is really tough because of what a competitor you've been in the game,'" general manager Ed Wade said. "'I know I tried to get you a couple times when I was in Philadelphia because of your ability and the way you compete.'"

Williams, who was informed early in Spring Training that he was not guaranteed a spot in the bullpen and would need to earn the job, finished the exhibition season with an 11.32 ERA over six games. He gave up five runs over three innings in his final appearance Friday night at Minute Maid Park, which did little to convince the decision-makers that the veteran right-hander belongs in the rotation.

Cooper and Wade met after the game and decided to wait until the morning to make the final call.

"We had some conversations last night, hoping we'd get a little more encouragement from the performance last night," Cooper said. "We don't think it was what it should have been. Chris has thrown pretty well. We know what we saw last year, we liked. We just decided that these are our best five guys as far as the rotation is concerned. We kind of slept on it last night and thought about it again this morning a little bit. We reconvened and decided this was the best way to go for us."

Williams began Spring Training determined to erase a disappointing 2007 campaign during which he posted an 8-15 record and a 5.27 ERA. The Astros were willing to give him every chance to redeem himself, given his veteran status and the hefty $6.25 million remaining on his contract. Including a $250,000 buyout on an option year for 2009, the Astros owe Williams $6.5 million.

Williams struggled through Spring Training, posting only one strong outing. Last weekend against the Braves, he gave up three runs in the first inning, but settled down and threw five shutout frames.

Williams needed to have a strong showing during his next appearance Friday in Houston, but that did not materialize.

"We saw encouraging signs, we really did," Cooper said. "We were all hoping we'd see some more. We just didn't get there. I'm sure he's probably just as disappointed as anyone. He didn't quite get where he needed to be. He expressed that this morning. We just thought it was the best thing for us as a group. We have five solid guys to run out there and give us our best chance to win. That's what we're going to do."

Williams indicated to KRIV-TV that he will retire rather than try to hook on with another team.

Sampson hit a few rough patches during the exhibition season as well, but the Astros are confident that his performance in 2007 will carry over in '08. Sampson posted a 9.17 ERA over five spring outings and was forced off the field in his most recent start after taking a Miguel Cabrera line drive off his right hip.

Sampson wasn't pitching under the same pressure as Williams this spring. He received word early that he was going to be on the team, in some capacity.

"Going in, I told Coop that I'd do whatever's best for the team," Sampson said. "Whether it be in the bullpen or rotation, I've had success at both. Whatever he thought would be best for the team, that's what I wanted to do. He knew that going in. I guess it works for my benefit for being versatile.

"It was my goal in Spring Training [to make the rotation]. It was my goal every since the end of the season last year, to come back and try to be in the rotation again. That part was very gratifying."

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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