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Star Turn After a false start last season, Morgan Ensberg is a hit in Houston

After being named the Astros' starting third baseman coming out
of spring training in 2002, Morgan Ensberg had an ominous
thought: I'm not ready for this. Ensberg, a 26-year-old rookie at
the time, was right. He hit .242 in his 2 1/2 months in the
majors, during which he was benched, and then was sent down. "I
felt burned out before the season even started," says Ensberg,
who for three straight years had played winter ball with only
four weeks off from baseball. "Last year was tough because I felt
I was killing the team while I was in the lineup."

Since he began playing third regularly in late May, Ensberg has
been hammering opponents. At week's end he led all NL third
basemen in hitting (.294) and on-base-plus-slugging percentage
(.979), and ranked third in home runs (19). More important, he
was one of the main reasons that the Astros, despite suspect
starting pitching (chart, right) and a drop-off in production
from some of their big bats, were leading the NL Central by 2 1/2

Here's why Houston was lucky that Ensberg found his groove: First
baseman Jeff Bagwell endured the longest home run drought of his
career between May 6 and June 13 and was hitting 24 points below
his career .300 average; second baseman Jeff Kent, who came to
the team as a free agent in the off-season, has been slowed by
tendinitis in his left wrist and was on pace to have fewer than
100 RBIs for the first time in seven years; and leadoff hitter
and centerfielder Craig Biggio had a .345 on-base percentage, 70
points below his career high.

"Morgan has been the guy who's carried us through stretches this
season," says Bagwell, who had nine homers and 20 RBIs since July
1. "He's gotten huge clutch hits and has kept us where we needed
to be."

Ensberg's turnaround began when he modified his batting stance
after he was shipped to Triple A New Orleans last year. The
righthanded hitter had been standing with his feet spread wide
apart and his bat held at arm's length from his chest. Ensberg
brought his feet 10 inches closer together, brought his arms
closer to his body and bent his bat over his right shoulder,
which made it easier for him to catch up to inside pitches and

During the off-season Ensberg skipped winter ball for the first
time since 1998 and stayed home in Orlando, where he began what
he calls a mental cleansing. "The big difference this year hasn't
been my swing or anything on the field," says Ensberg. "It's been
in my head. Now I know I belong."

Ensberg isn't the only Astro who's turned his fortunes around.
Rightfielder Richard Hidalgo, who hit .258 with a total of 34
home runs over the past two years, is close to his form in 2000,
when he had a breakout season (.314, 44 home runs). The
28-year-old slugger was hitting a team-best .323 with 18 home
runs and 57 RBIs through Sunday.

This Houston team will most likely have to bat its way to the
playoffs. The bullpen, second in the league with a 3.23 ERA, has
been a strength, but the starting rotation had a collective 4.35
ERA, and the top two starters, Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller, were a
combined 13-14.

"We need our top two pitchers to step up," says Astros G.M. Gerry
Hunsicker. "But the fact that we're in first place and the
offense has performed nowhere near its potential gives us reason
to be very optimistic."

COLOR PHOTO: SMILEY N. POOL/HOUSTON CHRONICLE/AP Batting .294 at week's end, Ensberg picked up the slack when the Astros' stars slumped.

Oh, What a Relief

The struggling Houston rotation had thrown a National League-low
571 2/3 innings at week's end, but the Astros' bullpen was
holding up well under the pressure and was a big reason that the
team led the NL Central. In 322 appearances Houston relievers had
a combined 23-17 record, 37 saves, a 3.23 ERA and a league-high
327 strikeouts. Here are the NL teams who depend on their bullpen
the most.

Team Relief Innings Team Record Bullpen Record Standing

Astros 373 2/3 57-48 23-17 First in Central
Reds 348 1/3 46-58 25-10 Fifth in Central
Rockies 339 1/3 55-53 13-16 Fourth in West
Padres 337 40-66 12-24 Fifth in West
Brewers 336 2/3 41-63 16-18 Sixth in Central