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Astros baffled by the prospect of another playoff flop

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ATLANTA (AP) _ Jeff Bagwell is baffled. Craig Biggio can't figure it out, either.

The Houston Astros have been one of baseball's best teams during the regular season, but they always fall apart when the playoffs begin.

Bagwell and Biggio have endured three postseason defeats since 1997, and they're on the verge of No. 4, with Houston trailing 2-0 in the best-of-five series against the Atlanta Braves.

Overall, the Astros are 0-for-6 in postseason series.

``How can this keep happening?'' Bagwell said Thursday after the team arrived in Atlanta for an off-day workout. ``We're too good for this.''

Biggio and Bagwell _ two-thirds of the Killer B's _ have come to symbolize Houston's annual postseason fade.

Biggio is a .146 postseason hitter after, going 1-for-8 in the first two games. Bagwell is batting just .182 in the playoffs despite a 3-for-5 start this year.

The other B _ Lance Berkman _ is 1-for-8 in his postseason debut.

``We're good people. We live right. But baseball is a cruel game,'' Biggio said. ``Why does it happen? I ask myself that question all the time. What did we do wrong?''

Houston has never won an elimination game, which doesn't bode well for Game 3 on Friday. Shane Reynolds will oppose Atlanta's John Burkett.

Astros manager Larry Dierker decided not to hold a team meeting on the off day, hoping that would relieve some of the pressure on his players.

Dierker also was in a better mood after getting snippy with the media during the losses in Houston.

``Here's the situation,'' he said. ``If we lose another game to the Braves, we're on vacation. And if we keep winning, we have a chance to go to the World Series. Either way, it's a good life.''

Dierker is clearly troubled, however, by his team's failure to play as well in the postseason as it does during the regular season.

``We all feel a sense of urgency because you don't know how many more chances you're going to get,'' he said. ``Some of our players are getting a little older and I'm getting a little further along in my managing career. We don't if we're going to get this chance again.''

Even though the next two games would be in Atlanta, the Astros have a glimmer of hope playing the first team to make the playoffs with a sub-.500 record at home.

The Braves were just 40-41 at Turner Field, but did win six of the last nine, clinching the NL East championship and a 10th straight postseason appearance. In the final 10 days, Atlanta took two out of three from both Philadelphia and the New York Mets, its closest rivals.

``This is a totally different season,'' Brian Jordan said. ``Besides, when we needed to win at home this season, we did. Coming home, I think we have the advantage.''

With a tough act to follow, Burkett will make his first postseason start since 1996. Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine started the first two games for the Braves, allowing just two earned runs in 14 innings at tiny Enron Field.

The 36-year-old Burkett considered retirement after being released by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in spring training a year ago. He was picked up by the Braves and wound up making the All-Star team this season.

``I thought my career was over,'' he said. ``Now, here I am, starting Game 3 of the playoffs for the Atlanta Braves. Just playing with a team like the Braves is incredible.''

The Astros will make a change in their lineup, starting Jose Vizcaino at shortstop instead of Julio Lugo, who made crucial errors in each of the first two games. Dierker said that was his plan all along since Vizcaino has a .396 career average (19-of-48) against Burkett. Lugo is 2-of-7 (.286).

``This is the exact same thing we did during the regular season,'' Dierker said. ``Certainly, there's more Lugo in our future than there is Vizcaino if we look two years down the road. We need to play Lugo and let him know he's our guy. But Vizcaino's had a tremendous amount of success against Burkett.''

The Braves didn't have manager Bobby Cox for their workout. He was in Birmingham, Ala., with his sister, Joy Rogers, who suffered a brain hemorrhage on Wednesday.

General manager John Schuerholz did not talk with Cox before the workout, but assumes he will return to Atlanta for Game 3. If not, dugout coach Pat Corrales likely would take his place.

``I know Bobby will find a way to be here,'' Jordan said. ``This will motivate us to win (Friday) so he can go spend a little more time with his sister.''

If the Braves sweep the Astros, they would have three days off before the NL Championship Series begins Tuesday.

Burkett knows it's important to knock out the Astros as soon as possible.

``You lose one game in a series like this,'' he said, ``and the momentum changes.''
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