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Tired Astros ready to refuel, refocus

Tired Astros ready to refuel, refocus

PITTSBURGH -- The Houston Astros' All-Star traveling party arrived in Pittsburgh around 5 a.m. Monday morning, thanks to a 12-inning game against the Cardinals on Sunday night that didn't end until well after midnight ET.

So it's understandable that Phil Garner, Roy Oswalt and Lance Berkman were somewhat bleary-eyed when it was time to address the crush of media that has gathered in the Steel City for the 2006 All-Star Game, which will take place Tuesday night at PNC Park.

Despite their fatigue, Berkman and Oswalt were forthcoming in answering all questions, which focused very little on the week's festivities and mostly on the Astros' fortunes of late.

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To say things are not good in Astroland could be construed as a gross understatement. In their recent four-game series with the Cardinals that completed the proverbial first half of the season, the Astros squandered several opportunities and lost three of four to a team that arrived in Houston last Thursday on a terrible losing run.

The best-case scenario would have put the Astros in a tie with the Cardinals for first place in the division. Instead, they're six out and three games under .500.

Oswalt and Berkman were candid with their assessments of the team. They still have hope that they'll be in the thick of a race in September, whether it's for the division or the Wild Card. But they're not fooling themselves, either. This team can't win if it continues to perform as poorly as it did in May, most of June, and the first half of July.

Oswalt's pitching has been great. His luck has been terrible. He threw consecutive complete games and received losses in both, and his losing streak reached three when he pitched one inning Saturday and gave up a solo homer to Albert Pujols.

The right-hander has not had many games during which he had a comfortable lead that allowed him to relax. Every inning is a grind -- every bad pitch, a potential loss.

"I think it's taken a few years off my life," Oswalt said. "Winning and losing is the hardest thing in itself, especially when you pitch a good ballgame. It's hard to go home and chew on a loss because you threw one bad pitch and gave up another two runs and lose."

That said, he won't pin the blame entirely on his teammates. Both Oswalt and Berkman agreed that they're seeing the effort from the Astros. The results just aren't there.

"It's not like the team's not trying," Oswalt said. "No one's not giving 100 percent, and that's all you can ask from your players. I've watched guys behind me and they're trying to get to every ball, trying to do everything they can. Sometimes it just doesn't fall the right way."

Is the team pressing?

"Yes," Oswalt said. "I think the whole team's pressing. Getting [Roger Clemens] adds another starter to the rotation, but it didn't change the offensive lineup. Some of the guys that are supposed to be hitting aren't hitting and some of the guys who are hitting what they always hit, it's more amplified on them now, because the guys that are supposed to be hitting aren't hitting."

Berkman, the unofficial captain of this team partly due to the length of his contract but mostly because of his "man of the people" personality, had some well-documented choice words for his teammates after Saturday's loss. He doesn't regret making them, but he also picks and chooses the timing of his outbursts.

"The only time I get upset enough to yell is when there's a lack of effort," Berkman said. "As long as the effort's there, what good is it going to do for me to yell at somebody? They just didn't get the job done. It's not like the guy was trying to walk somebody or trying to strike out with a runner on third and less than two outs. What are you gong to do? Yell at them? They already screwed up and didn't get the job done."

That said, Berkman is wholly unimpressed with the overall performance of the club.

"Good teams put other teams away," he said. "We haven't done that this year. To me, that demonstrates the fact that we're missing something. Whether it's an attitude or a swagger or a confidence or whatever you want to call it. We just haven't got it this year."

Before heading to the airport to board a charter for Pittsburgh after the draining 12-inning loss to the Cardinals, Berkman addressed his teammates again. He encouraged them to have a good All-Star break, but to come back on Thursday with a new outlook.

"I said, 'Look, take three days, clear your mind, do what you've got to do,'" Berkman said. "But come back after the break ready to focus and ready to get the job done. Because we certainly haven't done it so far."

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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