HOUSTON (AP)—A couple of new Killer Bs have the Houston Astros one win away from ending 43 seasons of playoff failure.
Carlos Beltran hit a two-run homer and Brandon Backe pitched six solid innings in his postseason debut to lead the Astros to their 19th straight home win, 8-5 over Atlanta on Saturday for a 2-1 lead in their NL series.
Hoping to clinch the Astros’ first playoff series win in club history, Roger Clemens will pitch on three days’ rest for the first time this season Sunday. The Rocket, winner of his last four postseason decisions, will oppose the Braves’ Russ Ortiz in the best-of-five matchup.
“I was praying to be in this kind of situation, where every game means something,” said Beltran, traded from last-place Kansas City at midseason. “Being around so many good players in the clubhouse has helped me to become a better player.”
Houston has a humiliating history of October failure, having lost seven series overall and falling to Atlanta in the first round in 1997, 1999 and 2001. But with help from new guys like Beltran and Backe, and timely contributions from Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Lance Berkman, the wild-card Astros are close to advancing.
“We still have a long way to go,” said Bagwell, a 13-year veteran and one of the original Killer Bs.
Even after the Braves pulled off an improbable rally in Game 2 for a 4-2 victory in 11 innings, the Astros were feeling good for having earned a split at Turner Field and stealing homefield advantage.
The Braves got off to a bad start at Minute Maid Park. Starter John Thomson threw only four pitches before leaving after reaggravating a muscle pull in his side that forced him out of the final game of the regular season.
“It didn’t hurt when I was warming up, but I just couldn’t pitch,” Thomson said. “I don’t know how to explain it. It just popped. I was walking the stairs to go back into the dugout, and if I took a deep breath or moved wrong, it hurt.”
Thomson was replaced by Paul Byrd, who took the loss after giving up four runs on four hits in 4 1-3 innings.
“I know this team is hot here,” Byrd said. “But I didn’t feel like they were unbeatable.”
The return home did wonders for the Astros, who didn’t have a hit over the final 5 1-3 innings and finished with only four in Game 2 on Thursday.
Brad Lidge got the final three outs for the save. He recovered nicely from a blown save in Game 2, when he pitched a season-high 2 2-3 innings.
Needless to say, Backe had a much better afternoon than Thomson.
A reliever for the Astros until moving into the rotation in August, Backe showed the same uncommon poise he displayed when he stepped in for an ailing Clemens for Houston’s playoff-clinching win in the regular-season finale.
“He pitched, for me, just like a veteran,” Braves manager Bobby Cox said. “I thought he was outstanding.”
Backe worked his way out of a bases-loaded jam in the second, striking out Byrd with a 93-mph fastball to end the inning. Backe also shook off Estrada’s homer and Jones’ RBI double in the fourth, retiring the final seven batters he faced.
When Backe struck out Jones to end the sixth, Houston’s largest crowd of the season—43,547—saluted him with a standing ovation. Then Backe finally let go of some of those built-up nerves, yelling and pumping his fists as he darted back to the dugout.
“I’ve already proven myself in the stretch,” Backe said. “It’s nice to know that I can get through that situation at that time. It just builds more confidence that your back’s against the wall a little bit but you end up pushing right out.”
His final numbers were solid: two runs, five hits, five strikeouts and two walks.
The Astros also took off some of the pressure on Backe, pitching just 50 miles north of his hometown of Galveston, Texas, by jumping out to an early lead.
Biggio led off the third with a single and Beltran followed with the second home run of his short postseason career. His two-run shot landed in the mitt of a young fan, just over the outstretched glove of right fielder J.D. Drew.
Kent’s RBI double in the fifth bounced off the scoreboard in left field, allowing Berkman time to score from first base. Ensberg singled in Kent on the next at-bat to put the Astros ahead 4-2.
“I’d do that every day if I could,” Astros manager Phil Garner said. “If there’s a magic to being able to get the lead in the game, I don’t know what it is. We’d like to do it every time we’re out there.”
By the end of the fifth inning, the Jumbotron at the ballpark was showing a skit where a swarm of killer bees—get it?—attacked Atlanta’s tomahawk logo.
Indeed, this loss stung the Braves.
The Astros’ seven homers in this series tied an NLDS record, equaling the Braves’ mark in 1995 against Colorado. … Game 4 of the series is scheduled for noon Sunday. But if New York and St. Louis both win Saturday night, the Braves-Astros game will move to 6:30 p.m. CDT. … Houston ended a five-game home losing streak in the postseason against Atlanta.
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