Notes: These aren't your 2004 Astros
Oswalt plays it low-key; Garner discusses Manager of Year talk
HOUSTON -- Many Houston Astros players have been asked to compare this year's team with last year's playoff club and, of course, the answer is the same: the teams are entirely different.
The focus last year centered around the offense, while the '05 team made it this far because of pitching, and to a degree, defense.
But one lasting effect from the 2004 team has carried over to this postseason: the understanding that the Astros are indeed capable of winning a postseason series. Having gone 0-7 in playoff series, the '04 club was the first in team history to advance to the second round.
"This year, we know we can win a playoff series," Lance Berkman said. "Last year, we hoped we could win a playoff series. There's a big difference. I think you're seeing maturity from some guys in that respect, that we've been here, we've had success, and there's no reason we shouldn't be able to do it again.
"I don't think you can overstate the importance of it. The most important thing about last year was going forward in this organization. From now on, every time we make the playoffs, we're going to have that monkey off our back. We know what it takes to win in the postseason. It's very big."
No one took more heat for the Astros' past playoff misfortunes than Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, who we exonerated after their performances in the 2004 postseason.
Both have contributed handily in the early stages of this year's playoff run. Bagwell's input is on a limited basis, but his pinch-hit single in Game 1 of the National League Division Series sparked a five-run eighth-inning rally that led to a win over the Braves.
Biggio, who had a .198 batting average in six playoff series prior to 2005, has three hits in seven at-bats over the first two games of the NLDS for a .429 average.
He agreed that memories of last year's NLCS with the Cardinals has helped from a morale standpoint.
"I think it was nice, not just for Jeff and I, but for everyone in the organization and for our fans," he said. "Nobody had been past the first round. Baggy and I had taken a big hit because we've never got past it until last year. It just gave us confidence after last year, after winning [the Division Series] and playing a great seven games against the Cardinals. It was a big hurdle for us."
Modest Roy: Roy Oswalt has more wins than any other Major League pitcher since the beginning of the '04 season, but despite that 40-22 mark, he still slips under the radar in terms of national attention.
Oswalt's modesty is an accepted fact among those who are around him every day, but perhaps manager Phil Garner put it best when he compared Oswalt to, shall we say, some of the more celebrated characters of today's game.
"He's much more low-key," Garner said of Oswalt. "If he had blood on his sock, you'd never know it. He'd cover it up."
Garner was referring to Boston's Curt Schilling, who pitched through a torn tendon sheath in his right ankle during the Red Sox World Series run last year. The sock is in the Hall of Fame, and the legend of Schilling's heroics while pitching with blood dripping from his ankle lives on.
Why? Because Schilling talked about it, at length. Some may say, ad nauseum.
Garner made sure to emphasize that his Schilling comment wasn't a slam on the Red Sox right-hander. He used the comparison simply to make a point.
"Schilling feeds on notoriety and great pitchers do," Garner said. "There are also great pitchers who are very low-key. That's the way Roy is. Schilling thrives off the moment, the notoriety, the attention. Roy just shies away from it. That's all."
Manager of the Year? Braves skipper Bobby Cox appears to be a unanimous favorite to win the NL Manager of the Year award, which is probably why few other skippers around the league have been mentioned as a candidate for the annual distinction.
But what about Garner? When the season began, most observers scoffed at the lineup and assumed the best pitching staff in club history would go to waste because of an anemic offense. After 45 games, the criticism was warranted.
Times have changed. The Astros are in the playoffs for the second year in a row, and since he took over the club after the All-Star break in 2004, Garner has a managerial record of 139-99, a winning percentage of .581.
Garner is flattered by the Manager of the Year talk, but after 11 seasons in Milwaukee and Detroit and posting only one winning season -- his first -- he knows that a manager is only as good as his organization.
"Losing after a number of years, what the game does, it teaches you a little bit of humility," he said. "You don't get here without an owner that's willing to spend money, you don't get here without a general manager who will make some deals and do some things for you, and develop kids and know the system well enough.
"You've got to have scouts who can get them, and coaches ... I'm going down the whole list. Everything's important. I'm not sitting here saying, 'Yeah, I'm the guy who's doing this thing.'"
He has arrived: Morgan Ensberg claims he didn't hear the Braves fans booing him in Game 2 of the Division Series in Atlanta on Thursday, but even if he had, he wouldn't have taken it personally.
In fact, when a player is booed in an opponent's ballpark, that's usually taken as the highest compliment. It's no coincidence that Braves fans voiced their displeasure toward Ensberg the day after the third baseman was 3-for-4 with five RBIs in Game 1.
"I don't hear too much when I'm out there," Ensberg said. "Of course, if the entire crowd gets up and cheers or boos you, of course you hear. Maybe I was so locked in. I didn't realize they were booing."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.