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Changes expected: Manager, staff on hot seat

HOUSTON -- Little has gone the Astros' way in the weeks since they acquired All-Star center fielder Carlos Beltran in the hopes of contending for the NL Central title.

More changes need to be made, and they may start with manager Jimy Williams.

Astros owner Drayton McLane and general manager Gerry Hunsicker will hold a front-office meeting Wednesday to discuss the status of Williams and his coaching staff, ESPN's Peter Gammons reports.

It is expected the Astros will make some changes, either getting rid of Williams or firing several coaches. If Williams is fired, Gammons reports the likely candidates for the job are former Tigers manager Phil Garner and former Rockies and Cubs manager Don Baylor, who is currently a coach with the Mets.

Speculation about Williams' job security intensified Monday, a day after the Astros (44-44) finished the first half of the season in fifth place in the Central -- 10½ games behind division leader St. Louis. It's the first time Houston has faced a double-digit deficit in the standings at the break in 11 seasons.

That's a remarkable disappointment for a team that was a
preseason favorite to go to the World Series and led the division
for the first month and a half of the season. The All-Star break
couldn't have come at a better time for a slumping team, or a worse
one for a manager on the hot seat.

"Maybe what this club needs is a little break," Williams,
who is one of the NL All-Star team's coaches, said. "No, we're not
getting the results that we want. We know that. We know where we
are and what we have to do. Maybe we can get this thing turned
around."

McLane and Hunsicker have publicly expressed support for the embattled manager, but
their patience may be waning as the Astros chances of catching the Cardinals slowly slips away. St. Louis is 11 ahead in the loss column.

Williams has guided the Astros to two second-place finishes,
losing the division race last season in the final week. Much more
was expected this season with the free-agent signings of former Yankees teammates Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte.

Houston has failed to deliver thus far.

"It's been very disappointing," Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell said. "Obviously, we thought we'd be playing a lot better
at this point than we are right now."

The Astros have been surprisingly punchless on offense, ranking
only 19th in the majors in scoring. Their highly touted pitching
staff has struggled as both Pettitte and Wade Miller have spent
time on the disabled list. And Beltran hasn't been the quick fix
they expected -- the All-Star center fielder is hitting .263.

Clemens acknowledged that the Astros' struggles have put a
damper on his comeback from a 78-day "retirement."

"That's kind of your worst nightmare when you make these
decisions," Clemens said. "Regardless if I'm playing well or not,
I want to see smiles on the guys next to me. If you don't have a
couple of guys coming along with you, you get the handshake and a
pat on the back and you go home and watch the playoffs."

Hunsicker has repeatedly emphasized that the club has loaded up
solely for an autumn finish -- Beltran is a free agent, Clemens was
coaxed out of retirement, Jeff Kent and Craig Biggio are in the
final years of their contracts and Bagwell is nearing the end of
his career.

McLane quelled speculation earlier this week that he'd consider
shipping Clemens, Beltran or anyone else before the July 31 trading
deadline. The team held a players-only meeting last Tuesday, and
Williams called another the next night as the rumors about his job
escalated.

"It's frustrating that it's getting to a point where Jimy is getting criticized," Kent said.

Still, the Astros aren't completely out of it.

Houston is only 3½ games back in the race for a wild-card berth,
and as the Florida Marlins proved during their run to the title last season, there's plenty of time left.

"We just have to regroup and turn it around," Biggio said.
"The talent is good enough to do that. That's the difference
between this team and some of the teams we had before."