ST. LOUIS (AP) – Phil Garner was a gritty competitor as a player, a hard-nosed infielder and bottom-of-the-order hitter who always seemed to have an impact for his team.

Garner was so feisty, aggressive and determined, he became known as “Scrap Iron.” Willie Stargell started calling him that when they played for the last Pittsburgh Pirates team that won the World Series in 1979, and the nickname stuck.

Now, Garner manages the Houston Astros the same way he played.

“In terms of the way I played, I was aggressive, foolish at times, maybe the same way as a manager sometimes,” Garner said. “But it doesn’t really matter. It’s what goes on on the field at any given minute, the players have the ball in their hands.”

Garner’s aggressive style and enthusiastic manner were quickly embraced in the Astros clubhouse. It worked for younger players and proven veterans like Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte.

“We just go out and do what we’re told, and he’s really making all the right moves,” said Biggio, the 39-year-old second baseman who has spent his entire career in Houston. “He’s just really doing a great job.”

The Astros are in the playoffs for the second time in 15 months since Garner replaced fired manager Jimy Williams at the All-Star break in 2004. They fought back from difficult situations both times.

At 44-44 when Garner took over last year, Houston went 48-26 the rest of the way to clinch the NL wild card, even after losing Pettitte because of an elbow surgery.

After beating Atlanta in the NL division series for their first-ever postseason series victory, the Astros lost a seven-game NL championship series against the St. Louis Cardinals, the team they also played in this year’s NLCS after beating Atlanta again.

Houston was 15-30 in May, and it seemed its playoff chances were already gone. The Houston Chronicle even ran a picture of a tombstone that covered nearly half the front page of its sports section June 1 and read “RIP: Astros’ Season.”

But the Astros were 44-43 by the All-Star break and the tombstone reappeared in the newspaper, this time in a crumbled state.

The Astros never seriously challenged 100-game winner St. Louis for the NL Central title, but clinched the wild card on the final day of the regular season. They were the first team since the 1914 Boston Braves to be 15 games under .500 and make the playoffs in the same season.

Like their manager did during his 16 seasons as a player, the Astros never gave into dire circumstances. Garner kept them focused and did anything necessary to give them a chance to win games.

“He tries to make things happen. Anything to produce havoc on the field,” said pitcher Roy Oswalt, a 20-game winner the last two seasons.

“He’s an aggressive manager,” Biggio said. “Obviously, he’s not afraid to make adjustments or put certain plays on.”

Sure, Garner plays the numbers and considers statistics like every over manager. But he’s just as willing to go with his gut feeling.

Consider some of those “gut” moves this postseason:

-Chris Burke’s 18th-inning homer ended the NL division series against Atlanta and he hit a pinch-hit homer in Game 1 of the NLCS. Garner has started Burke in every game since, including all three games in Houston in center field instead of Willy Taveras. Burke had a triple, an RBI single and two runs scored in a 4-1 Game 2 victory.

-Before starting again Tuesday, Taveras pinch ran in the seventh Sunday and scored the go-ahead run. He stayed in, and sprinted up the grassy hill in deep center to catch a flyball and keep the tying run from scoring in the eighth.

-Garner replaced Biggio in the field in the ninth Sunday with Eric Bruntlett, who started the game-ending double play in the 2-1 victory.

This is Garner’s third managerial stint, after going 708-802 for Milwaukee (1992-99) and Detroit (2000-02).

Garner was fired after the Tigers lost their first six games in 2002. He settled in Houston, where he had kept a home since playing for the Astros (1981-87) and was still beloved by the city. He was on the Astros in 1986 when they missed going to the World Series after an 18-inning thriller to the New York Mets in Game 6 of the NLCS.

A .260 career hitter and a three-time All-Star, Garner hit grand slams on consecutive days in 1978, and in the 1979 World Series for the Pirates, he hit .500 with a hit in all seven games.

Manager Chuck Tanner liked Garner so much that when he went from Oakland for Pittsburgh, he traded for the scrappy infielder. Garner also spent a half-season with Tommy Lasorda, after the Astros traded him to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1987.

“You learn a piece of it basically from everybody that you play for,” Garner said. “I would hope that my managerial style is a great deal like Chuck. He’s my mentor.”

AP-ES-10-19-05 1928EDT

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