KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) — After a difficult decade away, Mike Hampton has returned home with the Houston Astros looking to recover some of the lost magic that marked his first tenure with the team.
The left-hander put up an NL-leading 22 wins for the Astros in 1999, but went on to become known as one of the worst free-agent signees in history. That might have been preferable to what came later: injuries that sidelined him for two seasons.
But now he's back and the Astros are counting on him to revive his career and bolster their rotation.
"More than any single thing that could help us win this year, it would be that," slugger Lance Berkman said. "If he returns to form, we're going to be a dang good team."
Pitching nine scoreless innings over his last two starts, Hampton is off to a good start this spring after battling to stay healthy the past four years.
He missed most of 2005 with five stints on the disabled list, then was out all of 2006 (elbow surgery) and all of 2007 (torn flexor tendon). He has 141 career victories, but just eight in the past four years.
The Astros were impressed enough with his performance last season, when he was 3-4 with a 4.85 ERA in 13 starts for Atlanta, that they signed the 36-year-old to a one-year, $2 million contract hoping he can make 30 starts this season.
He hasn't reached that mark since 2003 or played a full season since 2004, but Houston will need that kind of contribution with a rotation that is shaky behind ace Roy Oswalt.
Manager Cecil Cooper knows that Hampton's performance is a key to his team's success, saying it is "very, very important" for Hampton to stay healthy.
Also in the rotation is Wandy Rodriguez, a fellow left-hander who has struggled with consistency. Astros officials hope Hampton can share his experience and help Rodriguez turn the corner this season after winning nine games in each of the past three years.
Hampton was a workhorse in his first stint in Houston, starting 30-plus games in his last three seasons with the team and developing into one of the league's top young pitchers. He was traded to the Mets after the 1999 season and was solid in his one season there, going 15-10 with a 3.14 ERA.
Then came the big contract. Hampton signed an eight-year, $121 million deal with the Rockies and went 21-28 in two seasons with a 6.15 ERA in the second year. Things didn't turn around after he was acquired by the Braves before the 2003 season, where he had two decent years before the injuries began.
There have been a lot of difficult times for Hampton in the last 10 years, and memories of playing for the Astros helped him get through them.
"It's just a good feeling and I guess when you have those dark times or when things aren't going well, you kind of look back to where you had your most success and that's definitely in Houston," he said.
Hampton didn't just think about his time in Houston, he actually watched it for years.
"If you feel that you're getting out of yourself, out of your zone, you kind of look back," he said. "If I was ever going to look back, I'd always look back at video from here because that's when I felt I was at my best."
Though he hasn't spent much time thinking about the significance of resurrecting his career in the place where it got going, he does admit it "would make a great story."
"I still feel I can help this organization win," he said. "There's really no other place I'd want to do well than here."
He feels at home with the Astros, though this team barely resembles the one he left. Virtually the only holdovers from his first stint in Houston are Berkman, who was a rookie in 1999, and reliever Doug Brocail, who also left before re-signing in 2008.
Brocail gushed about how talented Hampton was when the two first played together in 1995.
"I was there when Mike was throwing in the 90s and had the cutter from God," he said. "It was when he was at the prime of his career."
As a 41-year-old who has gone through two heart surgeries, Brocail is well-versed in comebacks. It isn't surprising that he's one of Hampton's biggest supporters.
"I guess because I'm one of the old guys, I tend to root for the old guys," he said. "I root for everybody and try to help everybody out, but I like seeing the underdog. Right now the underdog is the older guy."
Brocail said the two have reminisced about their old days with the Astros, but haven't discussed how important it is for Hampton to be successful this season.
"I don't know if we've talked about that, it's just we're planning on it happening," Brocail said.
Hampton is confident his problems are behind him.
"I hope I can recapture some of what I had here," he said. "I feel it hasn't left, I just haven't had a chance to show it very much."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.
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