HOUSTON -- Former Astros manager Terry Collins returned to this city for the first time since he was fired in 1996 when the Mets opened a three-game series at Minute Maid Park Friday.

Collins managed the Astros at their former home, the Astrodome, from 1994-96. He went 224-197 (.532), including a 66-49 mark in the strike-shortened 1994 season.

"There's really nothing the same," he said. "The uniforms have changed, the ballpark's changed. I don't know anybody. There's really nothing similar to when I was here. I've certainly followed them over the years because I was a part of it once, but it's a whole different atmosphere now."

Baseball fans remember that the Montreal Expos had a terrific year cut short by the strike in 1994 and that fan disillusionment eventually led to the Expos' relocation to Washington.

But Collins remembers having a good team in Houston with stars such as Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. He would have liked to have seen what the Astros could have done in a full 1994 season, even though Bagwell broke his hand the day before the strike began.

"We were really playing good when that strike hit," Collins said. "Our pitching was really coming on and that was as good a lineup as anyone in the National League. It would have been a fun last 39 games to watch."

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Extra bases

Josh Thole batted second Friday night and will for the time being against righthanders, Collins said. He went 0-for-3. Daniel Murphy (0-for-4) hit sixth . . . Bobby Parnell will not rejoin the team until next week at the earliest because the Mets want him to pitch back-to-back for Triple-A Buffalo, Collins said . . . Ronny Paulino will catch knuckleballer R.A. Dickey on Saturday.