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Original Issue

Comeback Kid

With their offense depleted, the Astros are depending more than ever on the healthy return of Andy Pettitte

His body ached, but not from pitching for five months with a bad elbow. Late last season nothing pained lefthander Andy Pettitte more than having to sit and watch as the Astros came within one win of their first National League pennant. "I'd look over at Andy and could see that it physically hurt him not being able to compete and help us win a World Series," says closer Brad Lidge. "He was miserable."

This spring Pettitte reported to camp with a bounce in his step, a snap to his curveball and a renewed determination to fulfill the Texas-sized expectations placed upon him when Houston plucked him from the Yankees with a three-year, $31.5 million contract in December 2003. "It seems like forever since I was in a game," says Pettitte, 32, who had season-ending elbow surgery on Aug. 24. "It was rough to see the guys fight to get into the playoffs and then see we could have used one more starter or help in the bullpen. I'm looking forward to being there for them this year."

A healthy Pettitte is even more crucial to his team this season. With the free-agent departures of centerfielder Carlos Beltran and second baseman Jeff Kent, and All-Star rightfielder Lance Berkman out until at least the end of April with a right-knee injury, the Astros will only go as far as their starting pitching takes them. "With Pettitte ready to go alongside [Roger] Clemens and [Roy] Oswalt, we feel like we can stack up with any team," says general manager Tim Purpura.

Pettitte injured his elbow while checking his swing in his first start of the season on April 6. Despite two trips to the disabled list he continued to pitch with a torn flexor tendon; by his final start, on Aug. 12, his fastball was hitting only 83 mph on the radar gun, eight to 10 mph off his normal velocity. "He was battling," says teammate Craig Biggio. "A lot of guys would have shut it down earlier, but not Andy. A lot of guys here really respected how hard he was fighting."

This off-season Pettitte, who lives in Deer Park, Texas, didn't throw a baseball until early December and has since been cautious in his rehab. (He was scratched from his first scheduled spring training start last Saturday because of a sprained right ankle he suffered coming down some stairs at his Florida residence the day before; he was expected to make his first start late this week.) Not until last week did Pettitte open his full tool kit of pitches. "When I've been the healthiest, I threw four-seamers for half of the game," he says,"and now I'm really close to getting it all back."

Pettitte went 6--4 with a 3.90 ERA in 15 starts last season to become the first pitcher since Juan Marichal to have a winning record in each of his first 10 years. He's 13--8 in the postseason (and second alltime in playoff wins), and last October marked the first time in 10 years that he didn't throw a playoff pitch. "Things haven't worked out for me in Houston," he says, "but I still feel strongly that this is where I'm supposed to be."

Checkup Time

More so than in any other division, the race in the NL Central will hinge on the health of frontline starting pitchers with injury histories.

Chris Carpenter, RHP, Cardinals. The comeback player of the year's season was shortened by nerve damage in his right biceps, but he says he's now throwing better than at any point in 2004.

Matt Morris, RHP, Cardinals. After undergoing off-season surgery on his right shoulder, the former 22-game winner threw two strong innings in his spring training debut last Saturday.

Oliver Perez, LHP, Pirates. The 23-year-old had the highest strikeout rate in the majors (11.0 per nine innings) but has had shoulder stiffness this spring; he allowed four runs in one inning in his first outing.

Mark Prior, RHP, Cubs. After battling through a right Achilles injury and a sore right elbow last season, the co-ace was sidelined indefinitely on Monday because of inflammation in that elbow.

Ben Sheets, RHP, Brewers. The fireballer finished second in the NL in strikeouts in '04, then had off-season surgery to repair a herniated disk in his lower back; he threw 12 pitches in his first spring start.

Kerry Wood, RHP, Cubs. The team's other ace returned to camp last Friday after flying to Chicago for a precautionary examination of his throwing shoulder; he was sidelined with bursitis at week's end.




Pettitte, 32, must rebound from a year in which a bad elbow limited him to 15 starts.