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Queens’ Munro earns spot in Astros’ rotation

The fans nudged and pushed for a spot in the flooded third base stands at Shea Stadium last Wednesday, waiting for a chance to greet Pete Munro. Closing on 10 years, the stocky 6-foot-3 right-hander hasn’t lost his star label, but Munro is uneasy.

“The excitement of being back home always makes you nervous,” said Munro, now with the Houston Astros. “But at least I don’t have to worry about tickets — just 25 — and that’s because I’m not starting.”

Other than the deep Queens accent, Munro is hardly recognizable from his high school pitching days at Cardozo, and that has made the Little Neck native’s first trip to New York since 1999 more awkward.     

With his career weltering, Munro has refocused his life. He abandoned his cocky persona and adopted a more peaceful, humble approach as a born-again Christian a year and a half ago. He switched from a flame-thrower to a finesse pitcher and went from a future closer to a top flight starter.

“It’s a new beginning, a new start,” said Munro, who’s pitching for his third Major League team in three years. “I made a decision to rededicate myself to the game. When I first came up, I thought I was on top of the world and thought I didn’t have to work for anything . . . Now I’m different, more comfortable and plan to stay [with the Astros] for a while.”

Munro used a 94-mile-per-hour heater to become the city’s top high school baseball player in 1993. In June of that year, the Boston Red Sox made him a draft-and-follow choice, which allowed Munro to fine-tune his repertoire with Okaloosa-Walton Community College in Florida for a year.

A highly touted prospect with Boston, Munro was traded by the Red Sox to the Toronto Blue Jays for Mike Stanley at the trading deadline in July 1998.

Munro was tabbed as Toronto’s setup man the following year. That never panned out with Munro going 0-2 with a 6.02 ERA in 31 games and spent time in the minors. Munro said he was rushed into the position.

He had arthroscopic surgery to remove bone chips in his right elbow after the season and never regained his overpowering stuff.

“It really took me two years to recover,” said Munro, who now throws a sinking and cutting fastball and change-up.

Munro was traded to Texas in August 2000, but spent most of the next two seasons in the minors. In November, he signed a Minor League contract with the Astros, and he impressed the team in spring training and continued his excellence with Triple-A New Orleans. He got the call to big club in late June and hasn’t disappointed.

“He’s definitely a guy that we want on the team,” said Houston manager Jimy Williams, who managed Boston when Munro was traded. “He’s a guy that could win games for us as a reliever and as a starter. The players really write the lineup. They earned the spots and Pete has earned his.”

Injuries to starters Dave Mlicki and Wade Miller opened the spot for Munro, who has taken advantage by jump-starting a sluggish pitching.

In his third appearance, the off-speed pitching Munro tripped up the Cincinnati Reds for his second Major League win — and first since 2000 — with a six-hit, one-run showing over seven innings on July 13.

Ten days later, Munro tossed a two-hit gem over seven innings to frustrate the Milwaukee Brewers.

“He shows no fear,” Houston catcher Brad Ausmus said. “He certainly doesn’t look intimidated on the mound. He believes he could get anyone out. He’s a bulldog on the mound. He has the ability to be a top pitcher with this [pitching-rich] team.”

“I have to continue to prove myself,” said Munro, who was defeated Saturday by the Montreal Expos despite surrendering just six hits and two runs over seven innings. “Last year with Triple A Oklahoma I had my doubts that I would return to the Majors, but that’s where faith comes in. God gave me the talent to pitch. This is what I was suppose to be doing and this is what I want to do in life.”

Munro, who turned 27 in June, wasn’t an overwhelming reliever with Oklahoma last year — he went 8-6 with a 4.67 ERA in 33 games (eight starts) — but has flourished so far this year because of confidence

“I see pitchers like [Roy] Oswalt and Miller and take a lot from them,” said Munro, who is 2-1 with a 2.57 ERA in eight games and will rotate between the starting rotation and the bullpen. “They may be younger than me, but they are so aggressive. It spreads to me and the entire rotation and makes me work harder.”

Munro openly signs autographs and chats with fans near the visitor’s dugout. The aura of his high school career hasn’t really left and, in the clubhouse, shortstop Julio Lugo makes sure Munro doesn’t forget.

“He’s the man,” said Lugo, a former player at Fort Hamilton High School and with Youth Service Summer League team in Brooklyn, who faced Munro when he started for the Bayside Yankees. “He was the best pitcher in the city. Seeing him again, I remember there was a lot of people who didn’t want to face in high school and in the minors. I’m glad I don’t have to face him.”

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