Munro rested for key start

ST. LOUIS -- In terms of a silver lining, at least Houston fans should know that Pete Munro is well rested.

Munro, the Astros' Game 2 starter, hasn't been on the mound in a game since Oct. 1, when he started a crucial game on the final Friday of the regular season. That's because manager Phil Garner opted to go with a three-man rotation in the first-round series against Atlanta.

That meant using only rookie Brandon Backe in addition to six-time Cy Young winner Roger Clemens and 20-game winner Roy Oswalt. That plan worked -- or at least didn't prevent the Astros from eliminating the Braves -- but it has meant that Houston's last three starters have been working on short rest.

This is no way to get far in the postseason.

In the nine previous seasons that Major League Baseball has used the three-tier playoff system, the eventual World Series winner has averaged using starters on three days' rest only once in the entire postseason. No World Series winner in this era has gone to starters on short rest more than twice in the postseason.

Everyone remembers how the two-headed monster that was Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson carried Arizona to the 2001 title, combining to pitch 38 2/3 of 65 total innings in the World Series.

It's easy to overlook the patience Bob Brenly showed, when he also gave Miguel Batista and Brian Anderson starts in the Series. Never once in that run to a championship did he start Johnson on three days' rest, and Schilling only did it twice -- in Games 4 and 7 against the Yankees.

Because of injuries to Andy Pettitte and Wade Miller, Garner has apparently decided to lean as heavily as he can on Clemens and Oswalt. The results have been somewhat predictable, with Houston going 1-2 when its starters have had short rest. Since 1999, playoff teams using starters on three days' rest against a rested starter have gone 7-21.

This does not bode well for the Astros, who will give Clemens and Oswalt their regular rest before starts in Games 3 and 4 against St. Louis but apparently plan to bring them back on three days' rest in Games 6 and 7.

There's a decent chance that Houston will get at least to a sixth game, which would be played at Busch Stadium next Wednesday. Even if Munro loses to Matt Morris Thursday night, the Astros should win two out of three at Minute Maid Park, where they had won 19 in a row before Atlanta won Sunday, extending the Division Series to a deciding fifth game.

But Munro could give them a huge lift, and boost himself into folk-hero status for his franchise, by beating Morris in Game 2. This is a journeyman earning $305,000 against a $12.5-million man.

A day before he was to pitch, the 29-year-old Munro did not try to hide his anxiety.

"I would say so,'' Munro answered, when asked if he was nervous. "I mean, but I'm nervous in any type of game atmosphere. I believe that's normal. I've asked some big-game pitchers -- David Wells, Clemens. They all say that they still get nervous. If you don't, there's something wrong with you.''

Munro owns 13 major-league victories. He went to camp with Minnesota this season but failed to land a spot on the big-league club. He opened the year working in the Twins' Triple-A rotation but had a clause in his contract saying he could ask out if was still in the minors on June 1. He did just that and signed with Houston two days later.

With the big-league rotation in shambles, general manager Gerry Hunsicker brought Munro straight to Minute Maid. He spent the year patching holes created by injuries, going 4-7 with a 5.15 earned-run average in 21 games, including 19 starts.

He never quite gained the trust of Garner, as evidenced by the quick hook he got in his last start, a must-win game against Colorado. He allowed one run in 2 2/3 innings as Garner called for the bullpen the first time he ran into trouble, and the Astros went on to a 4-2 victory. They were 9-10 in his starts.

"Pete has thrown pretty good at times, and I asked Pete to do something quite unusual down the stretch,'' Garner said. "When we expanded the
rosters, we had a lot of people in the bullpen, and we had quite a few guys on the bench. One of the problems that we were having in a couple of Pete's starts and sort of down the stretch is we had such an offensive outburst to get back in the race, and when we slacked off a bit we were having a little trouble scoring some runs.

"I told Pete one of the things I might do is take him out of games earlier, and a lot of times it wouldn't reflect how he was pitching; it was that I wanted to try to get another at-bat and try to generate some offense from the [pitcher's] spot a lot of times.

"In two or three of his starts I took him out, it was early not because of how he was pitching; it was because of our lack of offense. Pete responded well to that. I would think as a starting pitcher, if I was one, I wouldn't want to be taken out of the game. To Pete's credit, I don't think he let that affect him. He stayed glued to what he needed to focus on. ... Pete's a super competitor.''

Munro seemed amused by the idea that he could have sulked or pouted after being lifted early in games down the stretch. It's fair to say he has a solid grip on his lack of leverage after spending most of the last seven years stuck in Triple-A with Toronto, Texas, Houston and Minnesota.

"I would say that I'm in a position in my career where I have to be OK with that,'' Munro said. "But, I mean, I'm a competitor so, I mean, I wouldn't say that I enjoy coming out that early. I believe that a couple of times it has happened we ended up producing some runs, and it ended up working out.''

Garner shouldn't be quite as tempted to pinch-hit for Munro this time around. Houston has been the highest-scoring team in these playoffs, with 43 runs in six games.

Munro has been doing a lot of throwing in the bullpen to try to keep himself sharp. But he relies on command, and the combination of rust and pressure could prove brutal in the biggest start of his life.

"It has been a long time, I think 13 days now,'' Munro said. "But I just continue to throw a lot of side bullpens. Just work on my location, which I've got to say is my strength. And it could be a good thing. My arm's rested. It could be a bad thing for some guys, but I don't think it's going to be a problem with me.''

In an ideal scenario for the Astros, Munro would pitch so well against the Cardinals that he'd earn another start against the Cardinals in Game 6. History says teams relying on a short-handed rotation don't have a whole lot of shelf life in October.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.