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TAMPA, Fla. -- Carlos Hernandez has returned from the World Baseball Classic, but the left-hander's return to the Astros will have to wait at least another day as Hernandez has been sidelined with an apparent infection.

"It appears to be an upper respiratory infection," Astros manager Phil Garner said Thursday morning at Legends Field before Houston's game against the New York Yankees. "He and [catcher Humberto] Quintero are off the trip today because of that reason."

Hernandez, one of six candidates for two open spots in the Houston rotation, has been gone since March 7 participating in the World Baseball Classic for Venezuela. He returned to the Astros' Spring Training facility in Kissimmee, Fla., on Wednesday evening following Venezuela's elimination from the tournament. Because of his absence, the Astros are uncertain where Hernandez is in terms of preparation for the season.

"He threw to one hitter [in the tournament]," Garner said. "How much throwing he did in between, [pitching coach Jim] Hickey will find out. He's not ready to throw very much, I don't think. He missed 10 days. So I don't know how much throwing he's done. I didn't get a chance to talk to him last night because he was sick. So we'll see where is, we'll find out where he is and go from there."

Hernandez came into camp off an impressive winter ball campaign and quickly impressed the Astros. Since his impressive Major League debut in 2001, Hernandez's career has been stagnant as he battled through injuries and a return from rotator cuff surgery. He has just one Major League victory since the 2002 season ended.

Before he left for the Classic, Hernandez was throwing free and easy and his velocity approached what it had been before the surgery. Now his comeback is on hold while the Astros wait for Hernandez to heal. With only 16 days remaining until camp breaks, Hernandez doesn't have a lot of time to pick up where he left off, but Garner believes it is too soon to scratch Hernandez from the list of starting candidates.

"He might jump right in and be able to take off," Garner said. "If you don't have an injury, you can get ready a lot quicker. ... I might look back at the first part of the season and say, 'Well, we needed another five days.' Right now, I don't know. We'll get him to pitch even if it's over in the Minor Leagues. If he ends up being the better candidate, he moves to the head of the class."

Numbers game: Besides determining which two pitchers to take from the pool of right-handers Ezequiel Astacio, Fernando Nieve, Steve Sparks and Taylor Buchholz and left-handers Wandy Rodriguez and Hernandez for the final two spots in the rotation, Garner must also determine what order they will go in behind Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettitte and Brandon Backe.

"Our fourth and fifth starters will get four starts in April," Garner said. "If our fifth starter starts on [April 12th], he really legitimately has three-[plus] weeks, so he doesn't have to be ready for the first game."

That extra time would obviously help a candidate like Hernandez, but there are other considerations, such as extra rest for some starters, the schedule and a desire to follow a right-hander with a left-hander in the rotation if practical. The Astros open the season on April 3 against Florida, when they began a string of 25 games in a 28-day period.

News and features:

* Astros notes: Hernandez sidelined

* Astros surge past Yankees

* Astros' new voices eager to call action

* Astros notes: Camp numbers reduced

* Astros fall in Pettitte's spring debut

* Soreness a part of Bagwell's spring routine


* Lance Berkman at Astros camp: 350K

* Preston Wilson at camp: 350K

* Brad Ausmus at Astros camp: 350K

* Andy Pettite on training camp: 350K

* GM Tim Purpura on Bagwell, Clemens

* Lidge breaks down the 2006 Astros

Spring Training info:

* coverage | Schedule | Ballpark | Tickets

"You've got to have a fifth starter, you're not going to bring back [Oswalt] on short rest," Garner said.

Backe satisfied: Brandon Backe made his fourth appearance of the spring Thursday and the right-hander came away pleased with his outing after going five innings against the Yankees.

"I felt really good. There were some pitches I left up, but really for the most part I felt pretty good," Backe said. "My changeup was working really good today, my curveball was there and my slider was there for the most part."

Backe gave up four runs on seven hits, including a home run to Hideki Matsui. He struck out one and walked two.

"I really didn't try to throw too many sliders for strikes, [I was] trying to throw them in and out of the zone," Backe said. "I used all my pitches, but I tried to stay away from the breaking balls in the early innings. The homer was a changeup that I shook [off] twice to get to. I think he knew something other than a fastball was coming. That was a good pitch by me, I credit him."

Garner wanted to see Backe reach his scheduled pitch count and throw strikes. The right-hander accomplished both goals.

"He did what he was supposed to do, I'd rather see two runs given up because he's making them hit the ball and put in play than walk guys," Garner said. "To me, that's a good outing."



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