At the lowest point, there was a dinner in Philadelphia in mid-August. And at dinner, there was a grim conversation between Houston Astros General Manager Gerry Hunsicker and Manager Phil Garner, whose team was foundering badly. And there was a list of players the team might have to trade in the coming days and weeks if things didn't turn around very, very soon. And at the top of the list was Carlos Beltran.

"At that point," Hunsicker recalled this week, "the wheels were coming off. And there didn't seem to be any spark, no signs of a turnaround. And we talked about the fact that, at some point if this thing doesn't turn around, we might have to face the reality that we may have to start moving some people and looking ahead to next year. . . . Beltran would have been the one who was most marketable."

What happened to the Astros next has become the stuff of legend in Houston and beyond. Hunsicker and Co. kept the team together, including Beltran, and a miraculous turnaround occurred. The Astros, four games under .500 and in fifth place on Aug. 14, rattled off 36 wins in their final 46 games to leapfrog five teams and win the National League wild card.

And after splitting the first two games of the NL Division Series in Atlanta this week against the Braves, the Astros returned to Houston -- where they have won 18 straight games -- for Games 3 and 4 Saturday and Sunday.

It was Beltran, their immensely talented center fielder and soon-to-be free agent, who lifted the Astros to victory in Game 1, as he smashed a two-run homer and added a pair of singles to back Roger Clemens's gutty seven-inning effort. Hampered by bruised ribs -- which he suffered toward the end of Game 1 when Braves reliever Juan Cruz drilled him with a fastball -- Beltran went 0 for 4 in the Astros' Game 2 loss.

Having seen Beltran hit 23 homers in 70 games for them since his acquisition on June 24 in a trade with Kansas City -- he hit a combined 38 homers with 42 stolen bases for the two teams -- the Astros are fully aware of the debt they owe to the front office for hanging onto their center fielder when the team's hopes were at their lowest.

They never wavered from their stance that they were going to keep this team together," veteran first baseman Jeff Bagwell said. "A lot of us in the clubhouse thought, 'Why?' We were that bad. When you have a talent like Carlos . . . if you've got a chance to get something [for him] and you might not be able to re-sign him in the offseason, it would have been understandable for them to have [traded him]."

Hunsicker, who surprised much of baseball when he engineered the three-team trade that brought Beltran to the Astros, held onto him even though he was aware of a dark reality: Beltran was going to be a free agent in November, and there was almost no chance the Astros could sign him to a long-term contract extension before then.

According to Hunsicker, Beltran's agent, Scott Boras, had made it clear his client intended to test the free agent waters. At that point, the Astros will still be a possibility, but one of many.

"No, you can't say you're confident [of keeping Beltran this winter] in a situation like this," Hunsicker acknowledged. "This is a very talented player who is going to be able to go anywhere he wants. He's waited six years for this opportunity. And unless he changes his mind, we expect him to go through the exercise. And once you get into the free agency market, you never know what can happen."

Already, $20 million is being tossed around as the amount it might take, in average annual salary, to land the 27-year-old Beltran. Privately, however, many baseball executives believe the days of the $20-million-a-year player are gone. No one has signed for that much -- not Vladimir Guerrero, not Jim Thome, not Miguel Tejada -- in the last three winters.

But the bidding for Beltran's services undoubtedly will be heavy. The New York Yankees are expected to be at the top of the list of his suitors, and the Yankees almost always get what they want. The Boston Red Sox, New York Mets, Chicago Cubs, Texas Rangers and Baltimore Orioles are also expected to have interest.

At the same time, the Astros have other major concerns to think about this winter. In addition to Beltran, both left fielder Craig Biggio and second baseman Jeff Kent are free agents. There will not be enough money to go around for everyone.

"We have a lot of huge decisions to make this winter," Hunsicker said. "Beltran is one of them. But I can't say he's the No. 1 priority."

It seems fairly certain the team will re-sign Kent -- if only as a hedge against losing Beltran, since losing both of them would take away 65 homers and 211 RBI of offensive production in 2004 from their 2005 lineup.

Biggio is a dicier proposition. While owner Drayton McLane is known to value the stability and sense of identity that Biggio and Bagwell bring to the franchise -- the former has been with the team since 1988, the latter since 1991 -- it is also clear that there may not be a position for Biggio. The team feels Jason Lane, a 27-year-old outfielder with huge minor league numbers, needs to play next season, and the logical position is Biggio's.

That leaves Beltran, who is young enough and talented enough to make a manager salivate at the thought of having him for an entire season, let alone five or six.

"As a Houston fan -- and I've been living in Houston for a long time now -- I would hope that Houston signs him," Garner said. "He's a great player to watch, certainly one of the most talented, if not the most talented, players I've ever had the pleasure of being around."

Carlos Beltran may depart via free agency, but his speed and power helped Houston surge into playoffs.