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Beltran prepared for takeoff

Houston unable to re-sign All-Star

Carlos Beltran let last night's deadline to re-sign with the Houston Astros pass without an agreement, and the New York Mets were trying to close an agreement with the speedy All-Star center fielder.

Both the Mets and the Astros were on the telephone last night with Beltran's agent, Scott Boras. While Houston had to sign him by midnight or lose rights until May 1, the Mets and other teams did not have that restriction.

Just after the deadline passed, Boras said he was still negotiating with New York. The commissioner's office confirmed there was no agreement with the Astros, virtually assuring he'll go to another team. Boras had been seeking a deal for Beltran worth more than $100 million.

The Mets, who haven't made the playoffs since 2000, were trying to pull off a coup for the second time this offseason. They lured three-time Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez from the Red Sox last month with a $53 million, four-year deal.

By allowing the deadline to pass without an agreement, Beltran also could be hoping other teams, such as the New York Yankees, resume their pursuit. The Chicago Cubs also are thought to be interested.

La Russa keeps perch Tony La Russa agreed to a three-year contract extension with the St. Louis Cardinals after taking them to their first World Series in 17 seasons.

He also said yesterday that the Cardinals are close to a new contract for general manager Walt Jocketty.

La Russa, 60, led the Cardinals to 105 victories and the National League championship last season. St. Louis has been to the playoffs five times in his nine years with the club.

The new contract will keep him in place through 2007, which would tie La Russa with Red Schoendienst for the longest tenure for a Cardinals manager.

"I never look too far ahead, but that gets my attention," La Russa said. "If it works out -- 12 years, I would have never thought that."

After the Cardinals' third-place finish in the NL Central in 2003, La Russa wasn't so certain about his future with the team. Last year he wondered aloud whether he'd still be managing when the team's new stadium opens in 2006.

La Russa has never moved from Northern California, and for a time in St. Louis he lived in the shadow of Whitey Herzog. He has felt more accepted in recent seasons, and winning is a big reason.

"It all has to do with the season you're playing," La Russa said. "It's a real fickle thing. So you should never feel too comfortable."

La Russa likes the moves the Cardinals have made since losing to the Red Sox in the World Series, notably the trade for 17-game winner Mark Mulder and the signings of infielders David Eckstein and Mark Grudzielanek.

A healthy deal Kevin Millwood finalized a $7 million, one-year contract with the Indians, who hope the righthander's elbow is healthy and that he can stabilize a young starting rotation.

Millwood, 30, has three seasons with at least 17 wins and has pitched more than 200 innings four times, but spent last year battling elbow problems. If healthy, Millwood would fit nicely into the No. 3 spot of the Indians' rotation, putting a proven veteran behind All-Stars C.C. Sabathia and Jake Westbrook. McCarty stays on Backup first baseman Dave McCarty agreed to stay with the Red Sox, agreeing to a minor league deal that would pay him $550,000 if he is added to the major league roster . . . Ruben Sierra, also facing the midnight deadline, decided to remain with the Yankees, agreeing to a $1.5 million, one-year contract . . . Pitcher Pedro Astacio (Red Sox) and catcher Brent Mayne (Los Angeles) let the deadline pass . . . Catcher Rod Barajas and the Rangers agreed to a $1.85 million, one-year contract . . . South Korean lefthander Dae Sung Koo agreed to a one-year deal with the Mets. Koo, 35, was 6-10 with a 4.32 ERA last season for Orix of Japan's Pacific League.

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