HOUSTON (AP) – Their supposedly good-luck beards reduced to goatees, their mood lightened by a typically fun-loving flight home, the Houston Astros didn’t have to put on a brave face Monday.

They’re always this relaxed.

Even losing the first two games of the World Series is no sweat to this group, not after all they’ve overcome to get here. Besides, they’re coming home and they’ve got Roy Oswalt taking the mound tonight for Game 3 against the Chicago White Sox.

“Obviously being 0-2 is not where you want to be,” slugger Lance Berkman said. “But at the same time, we play well here and we know that if we win a couple games we’re right back in it.”

Adversity is nothing new to this club. They won only 15 of their first 45 games this season, yet clawed back and claimed a playoff berth on the last day of the season. Then they were within a strike of making the Series for the first time in franchise history when Albert Pujols hit what could’ve been an NLCS-turning homer, only to easily bounce back the next game.

The flight to St. Louis for Game 6 of that series was far from somber. And there was even more laughing and joking on the trip home from Chicago early Monday, plus some teasing about the change in facial hair and the reason for it.

“Everybody was getting tired of the beards,” said Jeff Bagwell, who along with catcher Brad Ausmus are behind the hairy scheme. “I think that, more than anything else, was the case.”

At no time in the air or in the clubhouse Monday did manager Phil Garner either get tough with his team or go soft and suggest a group hug. Motivational talk isn’t needed, nor are reminders of all the adversity the club already has faced.

“You just know it,” said Bagwell, who becomes a pinch-hitter again with the series shifting to the NL park. “The group just believes in each other. It’s a special group.”

Already the first team in 91 years to make it this far after being 15 games under .500, the Astros are now aiming to become the eighth team to win the World Series after losing the first two games on the road. Since the 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers did it, the last 10 teams facing similar deficits all failed.

Houston nearly turned the trick in last year’s NLCS. The Astros dropped the first two games in St. Louis, then won three straight at home. They came close to winning each of the next two games, too.

“You don’t really become a good team or a great team by pounding people,” cleanup hitter Morgan Ensberg said. “You become a great team by getting beat and then figuring out how to not make those mistakes again. That’s what’s happened to us.”

General manager Tim Purpura said it’s no coincidence the clubhouse is filled with resilient players.

“In baseball, we talk about a player having five tools. But the way we look at it is that there’s a sixth tool and it’s makeup and character,” Purpura said.

The Astros also have created a team built to their ballpark. They’re 53-28 at home this season, 4-1 this postseason.

The only playoff loss came in their last game, courtesy of Pujols’ shot. Oswalt took the ball in St. Louis and refused to let the Cardinals seize any momentum, pitching the Astros into the Series.

Now he’s trying to do it again after Scott Podsednik’s homer that ended Game 2.

“It would be nice to get the first win so we can kind of switch momentum,” Oswalt said. “We really need to win this.”

While Podsednik’s homer left Houstonians with a fitful night of sleep and prompted callers to talk-radio shows to question whether the Astros can recover mentally from another devastating defeat, a history lesson might help settle fans’ nerves.

Garner could tell the tale of the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates team he played for. Best remembered for their “We Are Family” theme song, they went from trailing the Baltimore Orioles 3-1 to winning the championship.

Locally, there’s the 1994 Rockets, who turned Houston from “Choke City” to “Clutch City” en route to winning their first NBA title.

And if anyone remembers all the way back to 2004, there was a club from Boston that was down 3-0 in the ALCS.

“I think you learn to understand although you may be down, you’re not out,” Ausmus said.

AP-ES-10-24-05 1925EDT

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