HOUSTON -- Andy Pettitte threw his normal side session on Sunday, but he threw off the mound on the field rather than doing his work in the bullpen.

"I just wanted to get out there," Pettitte said. "I did the same thing when I was in New York. I love to get on the mound, just to be on it after having a full offseason not being on that mound."

Pettitte threw five innings in his final Spring Training tune-up on Friday in Round Rock, and will make his first regular season start on Wednesday versus the Cardinals.

Pettitte, who is attempting a comeback after undergoing season-ending elbow surgery last August, will start the 2005 season slowly as he continues to build arm strength that he lost after having such a long layoff from pitching.

"I threw 82 pitches the other day [in Round Rock], and that was it," he said. "I didn't have much more in me. My first start, I'm hoping my arm doesn't peter out quicker than that. I hope I can give them 90 pitches, 95 pitches this time.

"Hopefully, I can give them a good six innings or so."

"We'll keep an eye on him for three or four starts," manager Phil Garner said. "We know he'll have some limitations."

New drill: The Astros practiced several fundamental drills throughout the spring, and recently they added a new one to try out, for Jeff Bagwell's sake.

The Astros rehearsed different scenarios when runners are on first and third, and, in one situation, they practiced what they would do during a rundown between first and second while keeping an eye on the runner at third, who may try to steal home.

Normally, after the runner starts moving, the "pickle" starts, the first baseman receives the ball and makes the tag on the runner. He then throws home to prevent the run from scoring.

But because Bagwell's ailing shoulder prevents him from making strong throws, runners may try to take advantage as soon as the ball is in Bagwell's hands. To stop this from happening, Bagwell can theoretically receive the ball in a rundown, tag the runner and flip it to one of the middle infielders, who is standing close by. The middle infielder then can throw the ball home to try to nab the runner.

That's what the Astros practiced for about 30 minutes on the backfields of Osceola County Stadium before one of their final Florida home games.

"Late in the game, if Baggy can't throw, what they're going to try to do is try to get in that pickle, try to get the ball in Baggy's hands and then Baggy can't throw, and they'll try to go," Garner said. "What we're trying to do is run it back as close as we can to first, and if we can, Baggy shovels it right back to the middle infielder and we've got the runner at the plate."

If the Astros use this technique, it would likely be later in the game if Bagwell's arm becomes tired.

"I think there's going to be a lot of times that he'll throw and he'll be fine, but sometimes if he's had several throws late in the ballgame and he gets a little knotted up, and it's hard for him to throw," Garner said. "In that event, we have these situations and we're going to have something in place."

Bagwell said it's hard to plan ahead for such situations, and he expects things to happen on more on instinct instead. He recalled a few years ago when he caught a ball in shallow right field and tossed it to Richard Hidalgo, who gunned down a runner trying to advance to third. That was not planned ahead of time.

"These things just kind of have to happen, like when I flipped the ball to Richard," Bagwell said. "But now, it's in everyone's mind, so if it does happen, they know what to do."

Royal connection: The Kansas City Royals traveling party included a number of personnel with close ties to the Astros. Jose Lima, the Royals Opening Day starter, pitched for Houston from 1997-2001. Manager Tony Pena skippered the Astros' Triple-A club from 1999-2001.

Catcher John Buck was a key component in the trade that brought Carlos Beltran to Houston last year. The three-way trade sent Octavio Dotel to Oakland, Buck and an A's prospect to Kansas City and Beltran to the Astros.

Buck, once considered the Astros' catcher of the future, harbors no ill will toward the Astros for trading him, especially since he went to a team that made him a full-time starter right away.

"Considering the situation, to get the player like Beltran, the way he affected the playoffs, if I was a businessman, I probably would have done it, too," he said. "I was able to move on and be able to start every day. If I was here, I'd probably be backing up behind Brad [Ausmus]."

But Buck never forgot his roots. During the playoffs last year, he was one of many self-proclaimed Astros fans glued to the television.

"I had my Astros hat on," Buck said. "Some of my best friends are out here. I was rooting. I was screaming. I was pumped up. All my boys were out there playing, the ones I came up with [through the minor leagues] and played with."

Duckworth struggles: Brandon Duckworth turned in impressive numbers during the spring season, good enough to likely merit winning the fifth starter spot.

But during his final exhibition start on Sunday, Duckworth struggled, allowing eight runs on 10 hits over four innings against the Royals.

The right-hander, who sprinkled six earned runs over six starts during the Florida portion of Spring Training, said he'd rather struggle now than after Tuesday, when the games start to count in the standings.

"Everybody's going to go through it," he said. "I don't like the results of it, but at the same time I have to build and be focused and get some guys out next time. Today, it one of those days you put in the back of your mind and say, all right, let's move on."