KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Humberto Quintero can do the math. He began Spring Training prepared to compete with two teammates for the backup catcher job, and now, with Hector Gimenez likely out for the year, it's down to just Quintero and Eric Munson.

Quintero appears to be the favorite to win the job as Brad Ausmus' backup, but that decision probably won't come until close to the end of the exhibition season. Judging from Quintero's body language, it's obvious he's not comfortable talking about his chances to make the club.

Like any other year, he'll go through a month of spring games with no guarantees, and he'll hope his performance is enough. And if he's spending any time pondering how much his chances increased when the pool of catching candidates was reduced by one, he's not letting on.

"I don't want to think about that," he said. "I just want to work hard and try to do the best for the team and win."

He's doing a few things to help himself. He spent the offseason playing winter ball, where he slightly altered his stance, moving his knees closer together in an effort to open up his swing.

He's also working a lot with frontline catcher Brad Ausmus, who has been providing valuable insight regarding his work behind the plate.

"He's teaching me everything, using my hands and how to block," Quintero said. "When he's not playing, he's watching me and telling me what is good and what is not good."

Overall, general manager Tim Purpura, who acquired Quintero in exchange for Tim Redding in a Spring Training trade in 2005, has been impressed with Quintero's efforts.

"The interesting thing about him, I think he's a pretty good hitter," Purpura said. "You look at his numbers going through the Minor Leagues, he's not a power guy, but he's a gap-to-gap guy. As he's gone level to level, his numbers have gone up. That says something to me. He's one of those guys that if he can cut down strikeouts and add walks, and he can drive the ball to the gaps, he's going to be very valuable to us."

First steps: The three pitchers who have been monitoring various injuries all posted scoreless outings on Monday in Jupiter, a positive sign that they're getting back to normalcy.

Right-handers Fernando Nieve, Chad Qualls and Miguel Asencio were among the six pitchers to shut out the Cardinals. Nieve started the game, allowing no hits over two innings, walking two and striking out one.

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Qualls and Asencio each allowed two hits over one inning.

"They didn't pitch great, but for the first time out for them, they did fine," manager Phil Garner said. "They weren't real sharp, but still they managed to put zeros on the board."

Gimenez goes under knife: Gimenez had successful surgery to repair the torn labrum in his right shoulder on Monday. The surgery was performed in Houston by team medical director Dr. David Lintner.

"His rotator cuff looked good," Purpura said. "He still has the same timetable, at least three months before he can start throwing, and late in the season, if at all this year, as far as being back playing."

Minor League game: The Astros Minor League mini-campers played six innings of an intrasquad game on Monday. They'll play another six on Tuesday, so that Woody Williams and Dan Wheeler can get some work in during that game as well.

Williams will likely throw three innings, while Wheeler will throw one.

"With 28 pitchers in camp, it's hard to keep everybody in a regular pattern unless you use some of these games," Purpura said."It works out well for them, to keep them on a regular schedule."

Among the crowd that gathered to watch the mini-campers play the scrimmage on Monday were Roger Clemens and Jeff Bagwell.

Right-hander Brian Moehler will start the Astros' game with the Mets on Tuesday. Dave Borkowski, Paul Estrada, Scott Sauerbeck and Ezequiel Astacio will also make appearances. On the Mets' side, left-hander Tom Glavine will start the game, followed by Jorge Sosa, former Houston closer Billy Wagner, Aaron Heilman and Jon Adkins.

Backe update: Brandon Backe could be ready to throw off the mound toward the end of this week, but he may be delayed after slipping during pitchers' fielding practice recently.

"It's nothing big at all," Purpura said. "But you don't push him."

Backe, who is nearing his first mound work since having Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery last September, has progressed on or ahead of schedule throughout his rehab process. He hopes to make a return in September, but a more realistic target date is the spring of 2008.

Cat in the hat: Here's something you won't see every day: Brad Lidge and Borkowski, plus radio announcer Milo Hamilton, wearing red and white striped hats, replicas of those seen in the classic kids book, "The Cat in the Hat."

Lidge and Borkowski joined several hundred kindergarten and first-grade students from Kissimmee's Reedy Creek Elementary School in conjunction with the National Education Association's 10th Anniversary of "Read Across America."

The trio, sitting on top of the home dugout at Osceola County Stadium, read Dr. Seuss's "The Cat in the Hat," as part of an annual tradition that calls for every child in every community to celebrate reading on or around Dr. Seuss' birthday on March 2. Dr. Seuss would have turned 103 this year.

Later on Monday, Chris Sampson, his wife, Heather, and several members of the Astros front office visited the Arnold Palmer Children's Hospital, where Sampson signed autographs for patients and their families for several hours.