ST. LOUIS (AP) – They’ve been together so long that Jeff Bagwell calls their relationship the closest thing to a marriage.

Through good times and bad, Bagwell and Craig Biggio became the face – one face, really – of the Houston Astros, so indelibly linked that no one would probably even notice if they changed their names to Baggio and Bigwell.

Now, as “Bij” and “Bags” wind down their 15th season as teammates, they’ve got another chance to reach their first World Series.

Who knows if they’ll get another.

“It’s important to them,” Astros general manager Tim Purpura said. “They are the cornerstones of this franchise.”

The Astros are back in the NL championship series for the second year in a row, finding the same team in their way: Central Division rival St. Louis, which denied Houston its first trip to the Series with a seven-game victory in 2004.

The Cardinals jumped ahead with a 5-3 win in Game 1. The Astros tried to even things up Thursday night at Busch Stadium.

Houston’s quest is downright personal for Biggio and Bagwell.

“There’s nothing more we would like,” Bagwell said, “than to get this city to the World Series.”

They didn’t start out together. Bagwell was a Double-A player in the Boston organization when he was acquired by the Astros late in the 1990 season for reliever Larry Andersen.

The Red Sox wanted to bolster their bullpen for a playoff run. The Astros didn’t know it at the time, but they had gotten the other half of baseball’s most enduring modern-day duo.

Biggio, 2 years older, was already a catcher in the majors, playing his first full season for the Astros in 1989. Bagwell made the team in 1991. They haven’t been apart since.

“It’s very special,” Bagwell said. “We’ve spent a long time together. It’s really like a marriage. We’ve had good times. We’ve had bad times. But it’s been a heck of an association.”

Indeed. Bagwell has surpassed 30 homers nine times and reached the 100-RBI plateau in eight seasons. He had long been the anchor in the middle of the Astros’ lineup, the stocky first baseman who could always be counted on to drive in the big run.

Biggio has long been the spark plug at the top of the order, producing 2,795 hits and 14 seasons with double-figure steals, including a career-best 50 in 1998. He started out as a catcher, moved briefly to the outfield, shifted to second base, went back to the outfield and is now finishing his career back at second.

Bagwell and Biggio became the mainstays of the “Killer B’s,” a group that altered its membership over the years. Derek Bell. Carlos Beltran. Current teammate Lance Berkman.

In 1997, with Bagwell putting up 43 homers and 135 RBIs and Biggio hitting .309 with 22 homers and 47 stolen bases, Houston made the playoffs for the first time in 11 years. But the Astros were swept in the opening round by Atlanta, their two big guns both going 1-for-12 with no RBIs between them.

It was more of the same three of the next four years. Houston failed to get past the first round. Bagwell and Biggio struggled. After another playoff loss to the Braves in 2001, they were fully certified October duds – Bagwell 8-for-46 (.174) with no homers and four RBIs in his postseason career, Biggio even worse at 7-for-54 (.130) with no homers and one RBI.

“When you’ve been teammates that long, you’re going to go through some ups and downs,” Purpura said. “They’ve gone through some down times.”

Finally, in 2004, a breakthrough. The Astros got by their nemesis Atlanta in a five-game division series, both Bagwell and Biggio playing key roles. Biggio went 8-for-20 with one homer and four RBIs, Bagwell was 7-of-22 with two homers and five RBIs.

In the deciding game, Bagwell homered, Biggio had three hits and the Astros pulled away for a 12-3 rout and the first postseason series victory in franchise history.

The team’s senior members finally had some redemption for all their postseason failures. But the Astros came up one win short of the World Series, squandering an early two-run lead in Game 7 and losing 5-2 to the Cardinals.

This season, Biggio kept chugging right along, playing 155 games at age 39 and helping the Astros bounce back from 15 games under .500 to claim the wild card.

But he didn’t have his longtime teammate at his side. The 37-year-old Bagwell had shoulder surgery in May and played only 39 games. He worked hard to get back, but he’s on the postseason roster only as a pinch-hitter and possible designated hitter if the Astros make it to the World Series.

“They’re on different plains right now,” Purpura said. “Biggio is playing every day, Bagwell is not. In some ways, I think Biggio is carrying on for Jeff. He’s carrying the mantle a little bit.”

Biggio chuckled when asked if he was shouldering the load of two players in this postseason.

“Carrying the what? What’s the mantle. Like the mantle on the fireplace? Or Mickey Mantle?” Biggio quipped. “Well, obviously, we want to get it done. We’ve dedicated ourselves to the city of Houston and this organization.”

Biggio and Bagwell haven’t thought about what it would mean to play together in their first World Series. Even with all that history behind them, they won’t allow themselves to look too far ahead.

“We want to get to the World Series,” Biggio said. “It’s all about the World Series. Hopefully, it’s meant to be for us. We don’t know yet.”

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