Less than two years after reaching the World Series, Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane has decided his team needs a fresh start.
The Astros play their first game following the firings of manager Phil Garner and general manager Tim Purpura when they open a three-game series at home against the surging St. Louis Cardinals on Tuesday.
Garner and Purpura were both fired Monday with Houston (58-73) sitting just one percentage point ahead of last-place Pittsburgh in the NL Central.
“I felt this was the time for a change,” McLane said. “When we started the season, I felt we had a great team. The team is there. It’s how do we change what’s there, renew some of them.”
Garner took over the Astros in the middle of the 2004 season, leading them to a 48-26 record down the stretch and the NL wild card. In 2005, Houston reached its first World Series, where it was swept by the Chicago White Sox.
The Astros were 82-80 last year, finishing 1 1/2 games behind eventual World Series champion St. Louis in the Central.
Bench coach Cecil Cooper was appointed interim manager and team president Tal Smith will serve as interim general manager.
Cooper’s first task will be to slow down the Cardinals, who have fought their way back into contention and can take over second place in the division for the first time in more than two months.
St. Louis (63-64) has trailed Milwaukee and the Chicago Cubs in the division since June 24, but can overtake the Brewers on Tuesday. The Cardinals can also pull themselves back to .500 for the first time since April 16, when they were 6-6.
“I just know we have more plusses than problems, and that hasn’t been true quite a bit of the year,” said manager Tony La Russa, who needs one victory to tie Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst for the most wins in Cardinals history at 1,041. “So we’re having some fun.”
St. Louis was seven games behind Milwaukee and six back of Chicago on Aug. 7, but is a major league-best 12-5 since to pull within two games of the division-leading Cubs and a half-game of the Brewers.
The Cardinals capped a six-game homestand with a 4-1 victory over Atlanta on Sunday, as Adam Wainwright held the Braves to one run and six hits in seven sharp innings. St. Louis has held opponents to two runs or fewer in nine of 17 games during its surge.
“We’ve still got a ways to go but we’ve played ourselves back into contention,” Wainwright said.
The Astros, meanwhile, have been relegated to the role of spoiler. They’re 15 games under .500, putting them on pace for their first losing season since 2000.
On Sunday, third baseman Ty Wigginton hit a go-ahead two-run homer in the eighth inning to help Houston avoid a sweep with a 5-4 win over Pittsburgh. It was just the Astros’ second victory in eight games.
They’ll go for back-to-back wins with Woody Williams (8-12, 4.84 ERA) looking to win his fourth straight decision. The right-hander is 3-0 with a 3.62 ERA in six games - five starts - in August.
He held Washington to two runs in 6 1-3 innings of a 3-2 victory Wednesday, and is looking to win four straight decisions for the first time since closing 2006 with a five-start win streak for San Diego.
“He deserves (the win),” reliever Chad Qualls told the Astros’ official Web site after Williams’ last outing. “He’s been throwing the ball great and he had some tough luck earlier in the year. Now, he’s just turned it around.”
Williams, who pitched for the Cardinals from 2001-04, is 1-2 with a 5.00 ERA in three starts against them since departing as a free agent after the 2004 season.
St. Louis first baseman Albert Pujols, batting .380 (19-for-50) with six home runs in his last 13 games, is 4-for-7 with a homer, two doubles and three walks in his career against Williams.
Braden Looper (10-10, 4.90) will try to continue his own strong pitching for the Cardinals, as he’s 2-1 with a 3.33 ERA in his last four starts. The right-hander, however, hasn’t gotten a victory in his last two outings despite holding opponents to two runs and four hits in six innings each time.
On Wednesday, he left with the lead but didn’t get the decision in the Cardinals’ 6-4 win over Florida.
Looper is 5-2 with a 2.33 ERA in 32 games against the Astros. Since being moved to the starting rotation at the beginning of this season, he’s 1-0 with a 3.00 ERA in two starts against them.
The Cardinals lead 6-3 in the season series with the Astros - 4-2 at Minute Maid Park - and have won all three series.
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