Astros ax Cooper; Clark takes over

HOUSTON -- The Houston Astros fired manager Cecil Cooper on Monday with 13 games left in another disappointing season.

Third-base coach Dave Clark was named interim manager and things didn't change much Monday night as the Astros lost their eighth straight, 7-3 to the St. Louis Cardinals, to drop to 70-80.

General manager Ed Wade said the change couldn't wait until the end of the season. He added that more changes could be coming for a franchise just four years removed from its only World Series appearance.

"We're tasked with evaluating all aspects of our situation," Wade said. "At the end of the day, we're going to try to address those off-field issues that exist. We're not walking away from it. The issue we had to address here, in the short term, was the managerial issue and that's why we moved forward today."

The 59-year-old Cooper was hired on Aug. 27, 2007, to replace Phil Garner. Houston went 171-170 under Cooper, who was the bench coach under Garner between 2005-07.

Cooper became the fourth manager to get fired this season, all of them in the National League. Arizona dismissed Bob Melvin on May 7, Colorado replaced Clint Hurdle on May 29 and Washington fired Manny Acta on July 13.

Wade said Clark would be considered a candidate during the search for a new manager. Cooper did not answer calls to his cell phone and his voicemail was full.

Wade, owner Drayton McLane and president of baseball operations Tal Smith met with Cooper in his office on Monday afternoon to give him the news.

While Cooper took the blame, he could not be blamed for all the Astros' shortcomings in 2009.

A number of offseason moves fizzled and All-Star first baseman Lance Berkman and pitching ace Roy Oswalt have had subpar seasons.

"It stinks when you know that your performance, that you're responsible for somebody else's job security," Berkman said. "Say what you want, we didn't get it done on the field. The players have to take the full responsibility. Coop never threw a pitch or batted with runners in scoring position."

McLane pointed out that the Astros' payroll -- almost $103 million -- is among the highest in baseball and that he thought the assembled roster was capable of having a better season.

"We felt, at the time, and with the investment we made, that there was the potential to have a winning team here," McLane said. "We'd love to have had different things occur with the players we selected. It's just a very complicated process. It's not easy to say the manager, the coaches or the players or management [can be blamed]. It all weaves toegther."

Cooper's initial contract ran through the 2009 season and the Astros picked up his option for 2010. Houston won 86 games in 2008, a 13-game turnaround from 2007. But this season, the Astros are almost guaranteed their second losing record in three seasons and only the third since 1991.

Wade said the extension was the right decision at the time, but "things changed" as the season unraveled.

"You don't have control over a lot of things that changed," Wade said. "We felt, at the time, that exercising the option sent the right message to our club, and to Coop about how we viewed our overall situation at that particular time."

Cooper was a first-time major league manager and the first black manager in Astros history. He played 11 seasons for the Milwaukee Brewers and his hiring as Houston's manager got the personal blessing of commissioner Bud Selig, who owned the Brewers from 1977-87.

Houston scored only 15 runs during their latest losing streak. The Astros are 28-46 away from Minute Maid Park this season and the problems went beyond Cooper.

Oswalt (8-6, 4.12 ERA) has been hampered by back and hip pain most of the season and won't pitch again in 2009. His ERA is a career high and his win total a career low.

Berkman is hitting .270 with 22 home runs and 73 RBIs, but he came into the season with a career average of .302 and had reached 100 RBIs the past three seasons.

The Astros hoped Russ Ortiz and Mike Hampton would bolster the pitching staff, but Ortiz was released on July 30 and Hampton's season was cut short by more injuries.

Houston is 311-323 since winning the NL in 2005, and Berkman feels the franchise has been heading in the wrong direction.

"We haven't been to the playoffs in four years and it seems like we've been on a gradual downward spiral," he said. "You can't just point to one thing, I think there are several factors involved in that. But, if there was an environment for sweeping change or reform, this would be it."

Clark became a major league manager for the first time. He managed the Astros' Triple-A affiliate in Round Rock in 2008 and was in his first season as Houston's third-base coach.

"The main thing is to finish the season on a strong note, bring out the best in these players and get back to that winning-type attitude," Clark said.