Williams' improvement shows

Williams' improvement shows to Astros

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Managers never want to put their veteran pitchers in do-or-die situations, but Sunday's Astros game with the Braves was undoubtedly a last ditch effort for Woody Williams.

The scenario was spelled out in simple terms by manager Cecil Cooper, even if he tried to soften the severity of the message. Williams needed to perform well on Sunday in order to merit pitching in his final spring game this weekend in Houston. If he pitched poorly, he was guaranteed nothing.

Williams' outing against the Braves didn't start well, but he settled in to turn in his first convincing performance of Spring Training. He yielded three run in the first frame, but held the Braves scoreless for the remainder of his outing, which lasted a spring-high six innings.

"I felt good coming in, and even felt good in the first inning," Williams said. "Real easily, it could have been no runs in the first. It's not the way it happened, but I wasn't going to get discouraged. Just keep going out there and doing the best I could, and things started coming together a little bit."

Williams yielded a base hit to Mark Kotsay to open the game. He walked Yunel Escobar, and both runners advanced on Chipper Jones' grounder to short. Mark Teixeira singled home both runs, and after Jeff Francoeur popped to first in foul territory, Gregor Blanco tripled to the deepest part of center field at the Braves' home park.

Corky Miller led off the second with a double to left-center, but Williams retired 13 of his next 16 hitters to cap a 95-pitch outing.

"I'll say this -- he was much, much better," Cooper said. "Much, much better. He just made a few mistakes early in the first inning, got some balls up. When you leave pitches up there, he gets hit a little bit. He was much better after that."

The three runs allowed were the fewest Williams had given up in his last four outings. He held the Braves scoreless over two frames in his first spring start, but then allowed five, eight and five runs in his next three.

Williams' performance on Sunday helped his cause, but did not guarantee him a spot in the starting rotation. As far as Cooper's concerned, the fifth-starter spot is still available. That means Williams will continue to compete with Chris Sampson and Jack Cassel, and on a slightly lesser scale, Brian Moehler, for the final spot in the rotation.

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"It's still up for grabs," Cooper said.

Williams is scheduled to pitch on Friday when the Astros host the Tigers for the first of two exhibition games at Minute Maid Park. Cooper said he intends to stick to that plan and acknowledged Williams deserves the opportunity to continue competing for a job, given his track record and veteran status.

"I think that's why he's continued to get opportunities here in the spring," Cooper said. "We told him in the wintertime and early in the spring that he had to pitch well. He had to really earn his spot."

Williams said he's not feeling any extra pressure and referred to his career numbers during Spring Training, which he recalled have never been very good.

"I don't feel like I need to prove anything," he said. "I know that's probably not their thought process, but with me, I know how things go in the spring and I know how things usually go for me in the season. Obviously, with last year being disappointing and me feeling guilty for not being able to do my job the way I was capable of doing, there are more expectations put on me and more eyes on me.

"When it comes down to it, I'm just going to go out there and give everything I have, and if it's good enough for this team it is, and if it's not, it's not. I don't know if it's my last time to ever pitch -- or if I'm going to pitch twice. Who knows? We'll have to wait and see. It's not up to me, obviously."

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