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The thinking was that new manager Jimy Williams would be able to take the Astros to a level Larry Dierker couldn't - postseason winners. But if Williams had a track record, it was taking talented teams and leading them to the edge of playoff contention yet getting fired before he could taste the champagne.

In Toronto, Williams would be fired before Cito Gaston took the Blue Jays to the Worlds Championship. In Boston, Williams got the axe before Terry Francona led the Red Sox to breaking The Curse Of The Bambino. But you have to work before you can be fired and the Houston front office wasn't thinking about replacing Williams when they brought him aboard. They expected him to win the title in his own right. In fitting with history, the Astros wouldn't win a postseason series until the year they fired Jimy Williams.

The veteran Williams had a managerial style that confused fans and made the media bristle. Asked to explain his strategy, Williams would state "Manager's decision" and leave it at that. While some of Dierker's moves were criticized, he had the good will of Astros fans that Williams did not.

Jimy's starting rotation was anchored by a pair of kids. Sophomore Roy Oswalt (19-9, 3.01 ERA) and third-year big leaguer Wade Miller (15-4, 3.28) were the only pitchers to win in double digits. Veteran Shane Reynolds (3-6, 4.86) lost time to injuries leaving young hurlers like Carlos Hernandez (7-5, 4.38), Kirk Saarloos (6-7, 6.01) and Tim Redding (3-6, 5.40) to pick up the slack. Veteran Dave Mlicki (4-10, 5.34) and Pete Munro (5-5, 3.57) also took some turns in the rotation.

Williams had to lean heavily on his bullpen which, fortunately, was in the hands of Billy Wagner (4-2, 2.52, 35 saves) and Octavio Dotel (6-4, 1.85, 6). Ricky Stone (3-3, 3.61, 1), lefty Pedro Borbon (3-2, 5.50, 1) and Brandon Puffer (3-3, 4.43) worked in set-up roles.

The offense was anchored by Jeff Bagwell (.291 batting average, 31 homers, 98 RBIs) and Lance Berkman (.292, 42, 128) but suffered from slumps by Richard Hidalgo (.235, 15, 48), Daryle Ward (.276, 12, 72) and Craig Biggio (.253, 15, 58). Catcher Brad Ausmus (.257, 6, 50) had one of his better offensive campaigns while versatile Jose Vizcaino (.303, 5, 37) pitched in around the infield.

The Astros started the first two months playing sub-.500 ball and mired in fourth place in the division. By June 27th, the Astros were 10-1/2 games off the lead. However, the Stros chipped away, winning 11 of 13 games around the All-Star break then 12 of 15 in late July and early August. When Houston topped the Marlins on August 7th, they came within one game of the division-leading Cardinals. The city anticipated another stretch run.

But that was as close as they would get.

A minor slump dropped the Astros five games behind. General Manager Gerry Hunsicker swung deals to bring veteran reliever Tom Gordon and infielder Mark Loretta aboard then Houston climbed back to within 2-1/2 games. From there, a 12-15 September slide left the Astros a distant second place, 13 games behind, carrying an 84-78 record.

There were some bright moments as well as sad ones. Biggio got the season off to a good start by hitting for the cycle on April 8th during an 8-4 victory at Colorado. On April 16th, Berkman homered his first three times up in an 8-3 win at Cincinnati.

Backup catcher Geoff Zahn drilled a pinch-hit walk-off grand slam homer on June 27th to drop the Diamondbacks. Vizcaino had a 5-for-5 game on August 17th against the Reds.

The sadness came on June 22nd when it was learned that former teammate Darryl Kile had passed away in his hotel room during a road trip in Chicago. Biggio, Bagwell and Ausmus chose not to play while they dealt with their grief. Yet, that night's game against Seattle dragged into extra innings and all three entered as replacements. Bagwell drove home Julio Lugo with the game-winning run and then cried as he was congratulated by his team.

For only the second time in the last six years, the Astros were out of the postseason. Drayton McLane had resisted signing a big-ticket free agent since pitchers Doug Drabek and Greg Swindell became disappointments in the mid-1990s. Now, McLane found himself revisiting that possibility.

By Astro Daily
 

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