Astros 5, Rockies 3
HOUSTON (AP)—Phil Garner savored the taste of champagne, the smell of his cigar and the wild celebration going on in the Houston Astros’ clubhouse.
Garner had known nothing but bitter endings after spending 10 mostly terrible seasons as a manager in Milwaukee and Detroit. He looked to be headed toward another awful year after taking over the slumping Astros at the All-Star break.
But Garner and the Astros capped an incredible late-season turnaround by winning the NL wild card, clinching Sunday by beating the Colorado Rockies 5-3 for their 18th consecutive home victory. Houston will face the NL East-champion Braves in a best-of-five series beginning Wednesday in Atlanta.
“This is almost just a big release,” said a smiling Garner, drenched in the bubbly and clutching an unlit cigar. “People thought we were dead in the water and we worked all the way back and changed that. This is just a great ending to what became an improbable year for us.”
Houston won the final seven games of the regular season and nine of the last 10 to complete an amazing push for the playoffs under Garner, who replaced Jimy Williams.
After the final pitch, Houston’s players ran out of the dugout to meet near the mound for hugs and high-fives while red and white confetti rained down on the fans. Garner was a bit slower onto the field, walking on the grass with a big smile and a tip of his cap toward the stands.
Eventually, Garner and his team donned silver-and-white caps with the Astros’ shooting star logo and the words “Wild Card” in capital letters.
“Gar has just come in here and brought a relaxed atmosphere,” Houston’s Lance Berkman said. “He knew that we had a better team than we were showing on the field. He’s a fiery guy and he really has his own style and maybe that little shakeup was just the kind of thing that we needed to get us going.”
The Astros were a season-worst 56-60 on Aug. 14—four days later they lost star pitcher Andy Pettitte to season-ending elbow surgery. But they rallied and won an exciting stretch duel with San Francisco, Chicago, San Diego and Florida.
Houston earned its seventh playoff berth, first as a wild card—and the Astros are in great shape going into the playoffs. Clemens can start Game 1 on full rest as long as he’s recovered from a stomach virus, and 20-game winner Roy Oswalt would be ready to follow.
They’ll go to Atlanta trying to end an embarrassing string of past failures: the Braves have eliminated Houston three times in the last seven postseasons.
“I think we’ve got them right where we want them,” said giddy Astros owner Drayton McLane. “I really want those guys. We’ve done everything unconventional this year. So maybe we’ll do it again in the playoffs.”
It’s the second straight year an NL team replaced its manager in the middle of the season and went on to win the wild card. Jack McKeon led the Marlins to a surprising World Series title in 2003.
A championship for the Astros would be nearly as stunning, considering most people counted them out in August. Houston has never won a postseason series in 42 years of existence.
The Astros’ win eliminated San Francisco in the race for baseball’s final playoff spot this year. When the final score was posted by itself in large letters on the scoreboard at Dodger Stadium, where the Giants were playing, the crowd cheered.
Giants star Barry Bonds went down the line in the dugout, slapping palms with teammates, then grabbed his bats and was pulled from the game in the fourth inning.
Houston tied a season high Sunday with four stolen bases—even the plodding Jeff Bagwell got one. The Astros used seven pitchers for the second time in three days, and Brad Lidge got his 29th save to put the finishing touches on a day that began with concerns about Clemens.
The Rocket was all set to start on three days’ rest, but he was scratched in the morning after coming down with a stomach virus overnight. Backe, whose six career wins are 322 fewer than Clemens, wasn’t told he was going to start until about two hours before the game.
“I didn’t know what to think or what the reason was,” said Backe, donning a champagne-soaked `Rocket Man 22’ shirt in the clubhouse afterward. “I tried not to get caught up in the moment. Who knows if I’d found out the night before that I was going to start?”
Backe was barely challenged by Jamey Wright and the Rockies.
Wright (2-3) went only four innings, allowing five runs and five hits. He dropped to 0-10 in 15 appearances against the Astros, including 14 starts.
Backe, an outfielder in Tampa Bay’s minor league system for his first three years, had a two-run single in the second to give the Astros a 2-0 lead.
“Nobody wanted to win this more than me,” Wright said. “I was taking this like it was a playoff game. I felt I had great stuff, but the killer was the 0-2 hit that Backe got.”
From there, the game almost had the feeling of a coronation: a video montage of the Astros’ run to the playoffs played on the Jumbotron between innings and the sellout crowd gave the team a standing ovation after every inning.
“I don’t know what gave us the bigger lift—his pitching or his hitting,” Craig Biggio said. “He has been our little secret weapon as of late.”
Colorado scored twice, but Chad Qualls got out of the inning.
Since Aug. 14, Houston is a major league-best 36-10. … The Astros’ 18-game home winning streak is the longest in the majors in 10 years. Cleveland won 18 straight at Jacobs Field from May 13 to June 19, 1994. … With sellout crowd No. 24, the Astros set a franchise record for attendance (3,087,872), earning a $600,000 bonus for Clemens. … The Rockies finished with nine losses in their last 10 games en route to the second-worst record (68-94) in franchise history. Only the expansion team in 1993 was worse at 67-95.