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Wednesday, March 30, 2005; Page H14

Hoo boy! Did somebody blow this one, or what?

A team that came within a game of the World Series last season now looks no better than third in its own division, if that. Wha . . . wha . . . happened?

Well, for starters, the team bungled its negotiations with Carlos Beltran to the point where the talented center fielder bolted for the New York Mets. Second baseman Jeff Kent, a likely Hall of Famer, also skipped town, signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Then, slugger Lance Berkman blew out his knee playing flag football, which means he'll miss at least the first month of the season.

This spring, the Astros have come to realize that youngster Chris Burke, whom they tabbed as their second baseman of the future, is not ready for the majors, meaning the team had to move the aging Craig Biggio back to second. The Astros, in fact, might look like a total disaster except for the fact that their starting rotation is headed by three potential studs in Roy Oswalt, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, and their bullpen is headed by the untouchable Brad Lidge.

Pettitte, in fact, could be the key to the Astros' season. Last year, he struggled through an injury-plagued season, finally undergoing elbow surgery on Aug. 24, which left him as nothing more than a cheerleader during the team's inspiring playoff run. This spring, after a slow start, Pettitte appears on track for what could be a full comeback.

The Astros hope they eventually will get something out of the three-year, $31.5 million contract they gave Pettitte in December 2003. Now might be a good time.

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