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Ancient Astros totter toward opening day

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KISSIMMEE, Fla. – There will be worse teams in the National League than the Houston Astros. The Padres, for one. The Pirates, for another.

But good luck to Astros manager Cecil Cooper keeping his job until October. Cooper didn't get his contract extended after last season, when the Astros defied statistical probability and won 11 games more than they lost, even though they gave up more runs than they scored. The Astros actually were in wild-card contention until Hurricane Ike intervened, a fiasco blamed on a) God, who tends to take the fall for such things, b) Astros owner Drayton McLane, who foolishly clung to hopes that games could be played in Houston until it was too late, and c) commissioner Bud Selig, who moved a series against the front-running Cubs to Milwaukee and a full house of Cubs fans, inspiring Astros players afterward to wear T-shirts that read "We Survived Hurricane Ike" on the back and "Bud Killed Us" on the front.

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Houston fielded the oldest team in the National League last season (average age 31.5). New addition Ivan Rodriguez is 37.
(AP Photo/Robb Carr)

If keeping the Astros in the race wasn't enough to gain Cooper job security for a franchise that has gone through three general managers and three managers since the start of the 2004 season, going 22 days between wins in spring training certainly isn't going to do the trick.

The Astros were 1-16-3 three weeks into the Grapefruit League schedule. They lost three times in the ninth inning, twice more in the 10th, and had three extra-inning ties. Loss No. 16 was a 12-1 beating at the hands of the Mets, the third straight game in which the Astros had been held to a single run, and the eighth straight game in which they had scored two runs or fewer.

You couldn't be that bad if you tried.

"I thought about that, too,'' said Cooper, a lifetime .298 hitter in the 17 big-league seasons who admitted there was a time or two he thought about grabbing a bat and hauling his 59-year-old self to the plate, given that a full dozen of his players were hitting under the Mendoza line.

Grapefruit League immortality is no longer within reach of the Astros, who won their seventh straight game Friday behind pitcher Roy Oswalt, returning from the World Baseball Classic, and shortstop Miguel Tejada, coming back from a federal wrist-slapping after lying to Congress about steroids. Tejada celebrated the first day of his one-year probation with a home run, RBI double and nifty snag of a low liner.

Oswalt said he never fretted about the 'Stros while he was away.

"Spring training,'' he said of the long drought. "All that means is somebody's Triple A team is better than ours. If you asked me during the season, yeah, but spring training don't mean nothing.''

McLane wasn't sufficiently embarrassed by his club to cancel a visit this week from presidential pal George (41) Bush, although he may have unintentionally highlighted one of the biggest problems facing the Astros when he joked that Bush, 84, would be splitting time at first base with Jeff Bagwell, who is retired.

It's a tossup which number was higher, the average age of the spectators at Osceola County Stadium, or the Astros' lineup. Houston fielded the oldest team in the National League last season (average age 31.5), and managed to grow even older this season by adding Ivan Rodriguez, 37, Mike Hampton, 36, and Russ Ortiz, who turns 35 on June 5. The Astros also brought in 36-year-old Aaron Boone to play third base, but he had an open-heart surgery Thursday. His replacement is Geoff Blum, who turns 36 on April 26.

Rodriguez has been in decline for three years, bottoming out at .219/.257/.323 as a part-timer with the Yankees last season. It's a measure of how desperate the Astros were for catching help that McLane, swayed by Rodriguez's strong performance in the WBC and the collective .135 batting average of the catchers in camp, ponied up $1.5 million to sign him.

Hampton, who has won eight big league games in the last four seasons and didn't pitch at all in 2006 and 2007 after having surgery on his left elbow both years, has pitched well enough this spring to win a spot in the rotation. Ortiz, meanwhile, has a total of seven big league wins in the same four-year span and didn't pitch at all last season after having surgery on his right elbow, but he's bidding for the fifth slot in the rotation.

Hardly the sturdiest safety net for Cooper, who also must contend with Tejada's vanishing range at short (he turns 35 on May 25) and the injury-prone Kaz Matsui at second (the anal fissure that placed him on the DL last spring places Matsui on anybody's All-Sympathy team).

The Astros still have a potent offensive combination in Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee, and the redoubtable Oswalt, who went 17-10 last season despite going on the DL with a herniated disk and a strained hip adductor.

Oswalt, asked about the Astros' AARP profile, chuckled. "I'm concerned about my age,'' he said. "I'm 31, but feel like 41. No, I don't look at age.''

What Oswalt has faced squarely is baseball's steroid problem. He was outspoken in his criticism of Alex Rodriguez, telling earlier this spring, "A-Rod's numbers shouldn't count for anything. I feel like he cheated me out of the game."

And yet here Oswalt is sharing clubhouse space with Tejada and Ivan Rodriguez, whom the sleazy but dependable finger-pointer, Jose Canseco, has said he introduced to steroids when they were teammates in Texas.

Tejeda was identified in the Mitchell Report as writing checks to admitted steroids user Adam Piatt when they were with Oakland. He was convicted on perjury charges after telling Congress he did not discuss steroids with Piatt, who according to the report said he provided Tejada with steroids and human growth hormone and produced a $3,200 check signed by Tejada.

But Tejada and A-Rod can't be lumped together, Oswalt said, because A-Rod confirmed he was a user after being outed by Sports Illustrated, while Tejada so far has only been convicted of lying.

"That's a totally different story,'' Oswalt said. "But like I said before, let's get all the names out there and get it over with, then we won't have to answer questions every day.''

Tejada's on-base percentage has dropped 65 points in two seasons. He hit 13 home runs last season, the fourth straight season that number has declined since he hit 34 for Baltimore in 2004.

Hunter Pence, who hit 25 home runs in his second season after a .322 rookie debut in 2007, offers hope for the future, but the pipeline of reinforcements coming from the Astros' farm system is almost as dry as Enron's.

But if there is a smoking gun that points to Cooper not lasting the season, it is this: He boldly proclaims that the Astros will win 90 games. "I said that last year, too,'' he said. "I think they're capable of doing that.''

Chances are that McLane believes him. And if this Over-the-Hill Gang doesn't deliver, guess who's going to take the rap?