Astros clean house

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HOUSTON (AP) -- This is not the way Craig Biggio wanted his final season to end. Still, when manager Phil Garner and general manager Tim Purpura were fired, it pretty much told the story of what has happened to the Houston Astros.

Owner Drayton McLane fired Garner and Purpura on Monday, saying the franchise "needed a fresh start" after a plunge to the bottom of the NL Central.

Bench coach Cecil Cooper was appointed interim manager, and team president Tal Smith will serve as interim general manager.

The 41-year-old Biggio got his 3,000th hit on June 28, the highlight of an otherwise dismal 2007 season. He announced his retirement a few weeks later, but he certainly didn't expect Garner and Purpura to beat him out the door.

"We didn't get it done and two guys are home that are good friends of mine," Biggio said before a reception at Minute Maid Park on Monday night. "It's a frustrating day. You feel bad because the accountability factor -- it's our fault, not theirs."

The Astros slumped to 58-73 this year, nine games behind the division-leading Chicago Cubs. They've lost five of their last seven home games, to lowly Washington and Pittsburgh.

"We had really fallen into a pattern of so-so ball," Garner said during a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "We were never able to put together the run, like we made in the previous two seasons. I think there were a number of reasons for that."

The Astros ranked 24th in the majors in batting average (.256) and runs scored (581). They rank 21st in team ERA (4.68) and their bullpen has blown 20 saves.

"We just didn't play up to the expectations we should be playing to," Biggio said.

Houston became the fourth team to switch managers this season. Baltimore fired Sam Perlozzo on June 18 and Cincinnati fired Jerry Narron on July 1, the same day Mike Hargrove resigned as Seattle's manager.

The 57-year-old Cooper becomes a major league manager for the first time. The five-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner was the bench coach in Milwaukee in 2002 and managed Triple-A Indianapolis in 2003-04.

Cooper says he has a plan for turning around the Astros. He promoted first-base coach Jose Cruz to bench coach and moved bullpen coach Mark Bailey to the first-base position and planned to unveil some lineup changes on Tuesday.

"I know how to win," Cooper said. "I really do believe I know what it takes to get the Houston Astros over the hump and back to the World Series."

Garner took over the Astros in the middle of the 2004 season after Jimy Williams was fired. The Astros went 48-26 in the second half and won 36 of their last 46 games to become the NL wild card, then defeated Atlanta in the first round of the playoffs before losing to St. Louis in Game 7 of the NL championship series.

Houston won its second straight wild-card berth in 2005 and defeated the Braves and Cardinals in the playoffs before the World Series sweep.

The Astros were 82-80 last year, finishing 1 1/2 games behind the Cardinals in the NL Central, but slumped this season following the departures of Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte.

"Our bullpen didn't pitch well, at times, our starters didn't pitch well, or we didn't hit well or we didn't catch the ball," Biggio said. "It was always one little aspect of the game that was off every night and that's why we lost."

Garner managed Milwaukee from 1992-99 and Detroit from 2000-02. He has a 985-1,054 career record as a major league manager, including 277-252 with the Astros.

"I had a wonderful time with the Astros," Garner said. "They gave me a great opportunity. They reinvigorated my interest in baseball and really gave me a great opportunity to reinvigorate my career. I'm more grateful for the job they gave me than I am saddened and upset by the firing."

Houston signed free agent Carlos Lee to a $100 million, six-year contract last offseason but also acquired disappointing starter Woody Williams (7-12). Purpura also took some of the blame for hanging on to Morgan Ensberg, whose stats dropped precipitously after an All-Star season in 2005. The Astros designated Ensberg for assignment in late July.

Purpura, who did not immediately return a telephone message, also made an ill-fated trade with Colorado, dealing speedster Willy Taveras and promising pitching prospects Jason Hirsh and Taylor Buchholz for Jason Jennings, who was 2-9 before he was placed on the disabled list with a bad elbow on Aug. 21.

The Astros didn't have a pick in the first two rounds of this year's amateur draft and didn't sign their third- and fourth-round selections.

McLane wants to find a new GM by the end of this season. Smith, 73, was the Astros' president from 1976-80, then opened a consulting firm. McLane bought the Astros in 1993 and hired Smith as team president the following year.

"We've got a lot of work to do," Smith said, "and in the next several weeks, we're going to sit down and examine all aspects of the operation. We will proceed with a (GM) search as soon as we possibly can and see if we can't set things in motion for the future of this franchise."