The Houston Astros’ faithful fans felt for more than two hours Friday that the 2011 major league baseball season was going to be different than predicted as their heroes scrapped tooth-and-nail against the one of the National League’s elite teams, the Philadelphia Phillies, before reverting back to their old ways of the previous couple of seasons.

Astros’ ace pitcher Brett Myers matched zeroes with Philadelphia’s former Cy Young Award winner Roy Halladay until the sixth inning when Houston pushed a run across to take a 1-0 lead and got Halladay out of the ball game, then added three more in the seventh to lead 4-0.

Myers allowed a pair of runs in the bottom of the seventh, but left the game feeling good about a 4-2 lead.

Houston’s multi-million dollar closer Brandon Lyon came in to get the final three outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, but instead gave up six hits to the seven batters he faced as the Astros ended up losing the Opening Day game 5-4. Lyon was credited with the mound loss in addition to a blown save.

Perhaps that game was a learning experience for second-year manager Brad Mills, who yanked Myers out after seven innings although he had thrown ONLY 85 pitches.

Things went downhill the rest of the weekend series for the Astros as Wandy Rodriguez threw his 83 pitches in only four-plus innings, giving up seven runs along the way. The Astros lost this Saturday matinee 9-4, despite slugger Carlos Lee driving in all four Houston runs.

Sunday’s series finale featured former Astros’ ace Roy Oswalt on the mound for the Phillies. It must be remembered that early last summer Oswalt demanded the Astros trade him to a contender capable of getting him some runs when he pitched. General Manager Ed Wade obliged and Oswalt was sent packing to Philadelphia.

Oswalt had a legitimate beef, too, giving up only two earned runs eight times and coming out of those games with a sub-par 3-5 record.

But on Sunday, Oswalt’s teammates lit up the scoreboard four times in the bottom of the first inning and Roy O. coasted to his first victory of the season, 7-3.

A quick glance at the 2011 Houston Astros would reveal three familiar faces in the outfield in Lee, Michael Bourne and Hunter Pence, but the entire infield that started last season’s Opening Day has been replaced.

First baseman Lance Berkman is gone and replaced by youthful Brett Wallace. Second baseman Jeff Keppinger is on the disabled list after toe surgery and is replaced by veteran Bill Hall.

Last year’s starting shortstop Tommy Manzella is in the minors replaced by Clint Barmes, who is on the D/L with a broken hand and is replaced by Angel Sanchez. Last year’s starting third baseman Geoff Blum wasn’t offered a 2011 contract and has been replaced by young Chris Johnson.

Even the two reserve infielders, Matt Downs and Joe Inglett are newcomers to the Astros. Downs was acquired off waivers from San Francisco last August while Inglett was traded last month by Tampa Bay for a player to be named or cash.

The starting five pitchers are pretty much intact from the end of last season—Myers, Rodriguez, J. A. Happ, Bud Norris and Nelson Figueroa, but the relief corps  has several new faces—Fernando Abad, Enerio Del Rosario, Mark Melancon and Aneury Rodriguez.
Although the new season is only three games old at this writing, the disabled list already has four members—Keppinger, Barmes, catcher Jason Castro, who will probably miss the entire season with a torn ACL, and pitcher Alberto Arias, who missed all of last season with the same shoulder injury.

This slow transformation to purge the team of high-dollar or aging personnel is the master plan of Wade, who did the same thing at Philadelphia, but was fired before the fruits of his labor could be appreciated.

The Phillies didn’t win a World Series until three years after Wade was fired. However, his successor, Pat Gillick, saluted Wade from the podium, saying Wade was owed a debt of gratitude.

According to last week’s issue of the Houston Chronicle, “since Wade’s arrival 3- 1/2 years ago, he has revamped the Astros from top to bottom, hiring managers, coaches, scouts and instructors at all levels.”

Wade’s three drafts have begun restocking the minor leagues with quality players as the organization strives to become respectable once again. But it probably won’t be in 2011, where the possibility of losing 100 games is not out of the question.

But the Houston Astros went 32-27 after the Oswalt and Berkman trades last season with most of the starting players on this year’s team.

After this first road trip against the team picked by many to win the NL pennant (Philadelphia) and the one picked to win the NL Central (Cincinnati), let’s hope the team doesn’t have to overcome a 0-8 start like last season.

KWICKIES…For the first time since the week before the 1977 Masters, golfer Phil Mickelson is rated ahead of Tiger Woods in the world ranking at No. 3. The talented left-hander tied the Redstone Golf Club Tournament Course record with a 63 Saturday and followed it up with 65 Sunday to win the Shell Houston Open by three shots with a 20-under par 268 and earn a check of $1.062 million. Tour rookie Chris Kirk and veteran Texan Scott Verplank tied for second at 271 and each collected $519,200. It was Mickelson’s 39th PGA Tour title.

And speaking of Tiger, he made a quiet return to Augusta National to complete a weekend of practice for the Masters without the crush of media documenting his every move. However, he still is the betting favorite of the Las Vegas Boys who have him at 5-1 to win this weekend at the Masters.
The Lamar baseball team dropped two of a three game series to Southeastern Louisiana at Hammond last weekend. The Cards won the opener on Friday 3-1 before losing Saturday 8-1 and Sunday 5-1 to the Lions. The Big Red now stands at 7-5 in the Southland Conference and 19-12 overall.

Despite the Houston Rockets winning their seventh straight game at home 114-109 over the Atlanta Hawks Sunday, they still trail Memphis and New Orleans for the eighth and final playoff spot by three games with only five remaining. The win moved the Rockets to five games over .500 for the first time this season.

The Lamar Cardinals have narrowed their search for a new head basketball coach down to eight candidates—former Texas Tech head coach Pat Knight, current University of Houston assistant and former Lamar player Alvin Brooks, current Lamar State College-Port Arthur head coach Matt Cross, current Memphis assistant Glynn Cyprien, Central Oklahoma coach Terry Evans, Lamar assistant Tic Price, Jones County (Miss.) Junior College coach Don Skelton and Oral Roberts assistant Chris Crutchfield. Athletic Director Larry Tidwell is expected to make a decision tomorrow (Thursday).

JUST BETWEEN US…Butler’s intellectual (almost nerdy) looking head coach Brad Stevens is probably as smart as he looks. He left the corporate ladder at Eli Lilly in 2000 at the age of 23 and took a coaching job at Butler at no salary, trying to make ends meet by waiting tables at Applebee’s to find out if he had a future in coaching. Now at age 34 he has led Butler University to a second-straight appearance in the national championship game. Stevens recruits smarter kids and then he can demand more of them, trust them more with defensive rotations and trust them to do the right things. Stevens says he loves Butler, appreciates the school giving him a chance to coach there and leaves every impression that he’s not doing one job while looking for another. He believes the grass is very green at Butler.