The sky's the limit

Dan Wetzel

It was February and the Florida sun was shining in Kissimmee for the first day of spring training – a time when everyone is kiss-me optimistic.

So you couldn't blame the Houston Astros. The franchise hasn't had much to crow about recently but with the offseason additions of Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, people around the team were saying some rather bold things about its potential for the 2004 season.

"It's not often you're on a team, unless you are on the New York Yankees, that you go into the season thinking you can win it all," catcher Brad Ausmus said that day.

Win it all? In Houston?

"Our expectations are so high now," Clemens said then. "We want to get to the playoffs and win 11 games. We are accustomed to that and we expect that."

Clemens and Pettitte were accustomed to it. Houston, which has never won a playoff series in its history, was not.

But the Astros now had the two former Yankees stars. Hope sprung eternal. You didn't question it.

If everyone wanted to make a feel-good story – two friends, two hometown heroes, two All-Stars returning to make baseball relevant deep in the heart of Texas – into a great tale, hey, why not?

It was, after all, possible.

But, then again, you weren't exactly shocked when the 'Stros were 56-60 on Aug. 14. Or when manager Jimy Williams was sacked in favor of Phil Garner, who didn't exactly have Bobby Cox's track record.

Or even when Pettitte was lost for the season due to elbow surgery, which may explain why the Yankees hardly lifted a finger in an effort to re-sign him last winter.

Houston was a fun story regardless of its mediocre record; a roll of the dice, a great career-capping season for Clemens. Attention and attendance were up.

But win it all? Try winning as many as you lose.

Yet here we are. Houston not only is the National League wild-card entrant – the Astros are the wild card of these entire playoffs. Is there a scarier team to face in a short, five-game division series?

Wednesday in Atlanta, the Astros will trot out Clemens (18-4, 2.98 ERA). Thursday it will be Roy Oswalt (20-10, 3.49). Then they go back to Minute Maid Park where they have merely won 18 consecutive games.

And Clemens would be available for Game Five, if necessary.

The Braves, who had a remarkable year themselves, have to be wondering what they did to deserve this draw.

"People thought we were dead in the water and we worked all the way back and changed that," said Garner, who will push for NL manager of the year even though he wasn't the manager for even half the season. "This is just a great ending to what became an improbable year for us."

Really though, this all started with those heady days in spring training.

The arrival of Clemens and Pettitte didn't just energize the pitching rotation; it changed the mentality of the entire organization. Clemens, a candidate for his seventh Cy Young Award, has a contagious work ethic and is a fiery leader. Pettitte is quieter, but no less determined.

You listen to those guys – especially The Rocket, who is a larger-than-life presence in the Houston locker room – and you start believing anything is possible. In this case it was.

Not just someone such as Oswalt having a career year. But the belief that an incredible late-season charge was possible. If Clemens kept saying it could happen, if he didn't stop working hard, then how could anyone else?

Since Aug. 14, Houston owns the best record in baseball (36-10). To win this wild, wild-card chase, the Astros finished the season winners of seven consecutive games and nine of their last 10.

Even the clincher Sunday took some faith. Clemens was slated to start on three days' rest, giving the Astros a battle-tested ace in the biggest game of the season.

Instead, The Rocket came down with stomach flu and, just hours before the game, Garner handed the ball to Brandon Backe, a former outfielder whose five career wins (all this season) put him 323 behind Clemens on the all-time list.

Backe not only pitched well enough for the win, he clubbed a two-run single.

In the locker room after he tried to make sense of this entire, crazy season. But mostly he just got sprayed with champagne while wearing a "Rocket Man 22" jersey.

A most suitable fashion choice.