Now or never for Astros

When the White Sox gave up three promising players for pitcher Freddy Garcia, general manager Ken Williams said he could explain his reasoning in two words: Nineteen-seventeen.

That's the last year the White Sox won the World Series.

Carrying that mentality over to the Houston Astros' recent deal for Carlos Beltran, GM Gerry Hunsicker could say it all in one word: Never.

The Astros have been around for 43 years without ever advancing to the Series, and with each passing year the hope of their fan base seems to slip a little bit. That's been especially true in recent years as the return of the NFL and the two-time NBA champion Rockets' drafting of Yao Ming have made owner Drayton McLane's new baseball stadium old news.

The Astros have to act boldly to keep the attention of Houston fans.

That's why the financially conservative McLane couldn't look the other way when Andy Pettitte let it be known that he would rather be with his hometown team than spend another few years with the Yankees. And when Pettitte mentioned that he had been working out with Roger Clemens, who just might be willing to delay his retirement, McLane was hooked.

But he didn't sign Clemens and Pettitte to finish in fifth place.

In the words of Hunsicker, "Everybody knows we've got a lot invested in this club, this year in particular."

So Hunsicker has kept the pedal to the metal, constantly looking for ways to improve his team.

He saw only one cure-all on the market after a disappointing start, so he let it be known that he'd be willing to part with any of his top prospects to land Beltran, arguably the best all-around player in the majors. "If there was such a thing as a six-tool player,'' former Kansas City teammate Jason Grimsley said, "he'd be it.''

Suffice it to say that the Beltran trade was widely noticed throughout the National League Central.

"He's a heckuva player,'' Cubs manager Dusty Baker says of Beltran. "A tremendous player.''

The Astros know they probably won't be able to re-sign Beltran after this season. They were willing to give up their catcher of the future, John Buck, and their closer, Octavio Dotel, just because they feel such urgency to win this season.

Craig Biggio, an Astro since 1988, is 38 years old and eligible for free agency after this season. Jeff Bagwell, an Astro since 1991, is 36 and playing with tremendous pain in his right shoulder.

Jeff Kent is eligible for free agency after this season. The price of arbitration-eligible pitchers Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller is going to make it more difficult to make the other pieces fit.

Everyone knows the clock is ticking.

"This season is different,'' Houston Chronicle columnist Richard Justice wrote after the Beltran trade. "Clemens might be here for only one season. Jeff Kent and Biggio might not be back. McLane and Hunsicker aren't certain the Astros are good enough to win a championship, but they saw this season as maybe their best chance for a while ... They took a chance.''

Despite Clemens' resurgence, none of these moves are working as planned. The Astros were 38-34 when Beltran arrived last Friday, then lost two of the first three games he played with them. They travel to Chicago for a three-game series against the Cubs, who are in fifth place in the Central, 6½ games behind St. Louis.

Having won 20 of their last 27, the Cardinals have begun to look like they could have staying power. The Cubs have had the best starting pitching in the NL even with Kerry Wood and Mark Prior spending extended time on the disabled list, so you've got to expect a run from them if they ever get both of their aces healthy.

Hunsicker could have made manager Jimy Williams a scapegoat a long time ago, but has put the onus on his players to get things turned around. But you wonder how much longer Hunsicker can remain patient given the Astros' 15-21 record since May 20.

Some wondered if Williams might have been fired Monday had the Astros not pulled out a 1-0 victory on Sunday, avoiding a sweep at Texas. Pettitte returns from the disabled list Tuesday to start against the Cubs. Clemens will follow Pettitte and pitch on Wednesday.

This is a key time for both of these teams, but at least the Cubs have some youth on their side. The Astros move closer to the end of an era with every passing day.

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