When the Houston Astros were slithering along as baseball's biggest flop in late July and much of August, there was talk of the team trading away some big contracts and cutting its losses. It seemed the only thing holding the Astros back was the embarrassment of acknowledging their massive failure.

As it turns out, all those trade rumors -- Carlos Beltran to the Boston Red Sox, Roger Clemens to the New York Yankees, etc. -- may have been just the result of some wishful thinking on the part of those teams.

And the reports of the Astros' demise were woefully premature.

"Internally, we were never close to packing it in," said Tim Purpura, the Astros' assistant general manager. "We never considered trading away our players, because of the commitment our ownership made. While there were some other clubs hoping we'd throw in the towel, we felt we still had the talent to progress to the playoffs -- and we still do."

What an incredible run the Astros have made: a 12-game winning streak beginning in late August to seize the National League wild-card lead. Though the streak ended Thursday, the Astros -- who were seven games out of the lead, with five teams ahead of them, when it began -- are one game behind San Francisco and Chicago in the wild-card standings.

And it's hard not to like the Astros' chances from here.

Not only do they have, in Clemens and Roy Oswalt, two of the best pitchers in the league performing at the peak of their powers, but they are also crushing opposing pitchers like the glory days of the "Killer B's." Even left-for-dead stars like Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell are slugging again, and during the streak, the Astros hit .340, bashed 31 home runs and scored six or more runs in all but the last win.

"I've never seen anything like it," said Bagwell, who hit .438 with five homers and 15 RBI during the streak.

"I've been on clubs throughout my years where we've won quite a few games in a row," said Clemens, after dominating Cincinnati for career win No. 326 on Wednesday, "but I don't know that it's been by the long ball with such devastation as we've been able to do."

And at this point, who is going to beat the Astros?

The Chicago Cubs? After spending the previous 21/2 weeks in at least a share of the wild-card lead, they had won just five of their previous 12 games, and they are just 14-24 in one-run games (fourth-worst in baseball, ahead of only bottom-feeders Seattle, Arizona and Montreal).

The Florida Marlins? Normally, they would be the smart pick because of their incomparable pitching depth. But they have been thrown into turmoil by wacky weather. Already forced to play three doubleheaders in an 11-day stretch because of Hurricane Frances -- a good way to turn pitching depth to mush -- the Marlins now have to move two home games to Chicago's U.S. Cellular Field this week because of Hurricane Ivan.

The San Diego Padres? They haven't won a home series since late July. The San Francisco Giants? They have no pitching to speak of behind ace Jason Schmidt.

When the Astros seized the wild-card lead on Wednesday, it marked the 10th lead change atop the standings since Aug. 1. And now one must wonder if it might have been the last.

Trouble for the Twins?

While the Minnesota Twins appear to be on their way to the postseason for a third straight year, and while the combination of Johan Santana and Brad Radke atop their October rotation has people already predicting a first-round win over the Yankees, the Twins are still capable of derailing themselves in the early stages of the playoffs.

After Santana and Radke, their rotation is a mess. Carlos Silva and Kyle Lohse have excellent stuff, but their inconsistency has the team considering 41-year-old Terry Muholland as their number three starter -- through either Silva or Lohse could change the team's mind between now and the start of the playoffs.

The Twins' average-at-best offense is probably not going to score many runs in October -- they are 10th in the league in runs scored this season -- so the decision is a critical one.

Orioles May Rebuild -- Again

The Baltimore Orioles are bracing for what looks like another major offseason overhaul, following the one last winter that brought Miguel Tejada, Javy Lopez, Rafael Palmeiro and Sidney Ponson.

In addition to the $18 million coming off the books when the contracts of David Segui, Marty Cordova, Omar Daal and Buddy Groom -- combined contribution this season: four wins (all belonging to Groom) and one homer (Segui's) -- finally expire, team sources indicate the Orioles plan to sever ties with Palmeiro and Jay Gibbons after the season, a potential savings of another $8 million to $9 million.

According to those sources, the Orioles again plan to be aggressive in the free agent market, with their top targets including right-handed pitcher Carl Pavano and right fielder Magglio Ordonez. . . .

Meantime, it has been a good month for the Orioles' scouting department. Aaron Rakers's promotion from Class AAA Ottawa to Baltimore makes him the fifth player from Tony DeMacio's 1999 draft to make it to the majors. Rakers, a 23rd-round pick that June, joins Larry Bigbie (first round), Brian Roberts (supplemental first round), Erik Bedard (sixth) and Willie Harris (24th).

Two players from the Orioles' 2002 draft have already made the majors -- right-hander John Maine (sixth round) and outfielder Val Majewski (third) -- with a third, right-hander Hayden Penn (fifth), moving all the way from rookie-level Bluefield at the end of 2003 to Class AA Bowie by the end of this year.

Pitching Problems in Oakland

The fact the Oakland Athletics have gotten themselves into some trouble in the highly competitive AL West is no surprise. But what's alarming is the fact it is Oakland's pitching that has failed. The A's staff ERA for September is above six, and they were swept at home in a three-game series this week against Boston by a combined score of 23-7.

The A's are certainly no lock to make the playoffs, what with six games still remaining against the Anaheim Angels, who trailed them by only one game through Friday. . . .

Will Jason Giambi play for the Yankees again this season? Manager Joe Torre sounded iffy.

"He's going to have to be comfortable [in the batter's box]," Torre said Friday. "He'll be the first to know -- when he gets in the batter's box and sits on a breaking ball and still catches up to the fastball."

Roger Clemens has helped the Astros rocket back into contention, much to the chagrin of a Yankees fan at Houston's game yesterday in Pittsburgh. Houston recently won 12 in a row.