Astros 2, Pirates 1
Brandon Backe made his second successive strong start and the Astros, scurrying by long distance to get family members out of Hurricane Rita’s path in Houston, held their lead in the NL wild-card race by beating the Pittsburgh Pirates 2-1 Thursday.
Backe limited the Pirates to one run and two hits over seven innings and Brad Lidge preserved the lead, getting the final four outs. Lance Berkman drove in two early runs against rookie Zach Duke, and the Astros made them stand up for their eighth win in nine games.
The Astros stayed two games up on Philadelphia in the NL wild-card race with nine games remaining. The Phillies beat the Braves 4-0. Houston starts a series Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field against the Chicago Cubs.
Backe made perhaps his best start of the year—he struck out six and walked none—despite having matters on his mind despite baseball. A native of Galveston, Texas, he has been spending most of his waking hours making sure his parents and other family members were safe before the hurricane.
His father left his home the night before but, because of heavy traffic, was 100 miles short of his destination Thursday. Lidge’s wife also was in heavy traffic, and figured she would be stuck for at least 12 hours.
“Once they start the game my focus is on baseball,” Lidge said. “But the moment I left the clubhouse and the moment I came back, I’m looking at the Weather Channel or CNN, looking at the hurricane. Obviously, a lot of guys on the team have family there. There’s a great deal of concern because it’s a very powerful storm.”
A number of players had their families fly to Chicago for the weekend. But Backe is worried because he can’t reach many of his friends.
“It’s definitely on my mind,” he said. “Who knows what’s going to happen? A lot of my friends are not wealthy and I don’t know if they’ll be able to get out.”
Even on a trying and worrisome day, Backe (10-8) was effective and focused on the mound.
The right-hander gave up only Craig Wilson’s solo homer in the fifth and Daryle Ward’s harmless single in the second. Backe has allowed one run in 13 2-3 innings while winning his last two starts, against the Brewers and the Pirates, after going 0-1 in two starts following a six-week layoff with a rib cage injury.
Backe could be important to the Astros’ postseason rotation because manager Phil Garner isn’t going to start the 43-year-old Roger Clemens or 17-game winner Andy Pettitte, who is coming off elbow surgery, with less than their normal rest.
“I try to pitch every game like it’s a World Series game,” Backe said. “I try not to give up any runs and, if I do, to give up less runs than we score.”
Lidge earned his 38th save in 41 opportunities, getting Jack Wilson to ground into an inning-ending force play in the eighth with runners on first and second.
Berkman drove in seven runs in the final two games of a four-game series in which the Astros lost 7-0 Monday with Clemens on the mound, then won the final three behind Pettitte, Roy Oswalt and Backe.
Willy Taveras got the Astros’ offense going for the second day in a row following a week off with a lacerated right middle finger. After going 3-for-6 with two runs in a 12-8 victory Wednesday night, he scored both runs as Houston opened a 2-0 lead by the third inning against Duke (6-2).
Taveras walked to start the first, moved up on Chris Burke’s bunt and scored on the first of successive RBI singles by Berkman, who has 20 RBIs this month. Taveras doubled against Duke leading off the third, advanced again on Burke’s bunt and scored on Berkman’s single.
Duke lost his second in a row after being out three weeks with a sprained ankle. He yielded two runs and five hits in six innings, giving him three runs and 10 hits allowed in 10 innings since his return.
“They got the hops and bounces,” Duke said, referring to Berkman’s twin two-out RBI singles. “I got some luck at the beginning when I came up. I’ll go along and keep throwing my game.”
The Pirates haven’t won a season series from the Astros since 1999. … Houston is 15 games over .500 (84-69) for the first time this season. The Astros are 30 games over .500 (69-39) since losing 30 of their first 45. … Wilson’s homer was his third in 174 at-bats after missing most of the season with two hand injuries. … Pirates LF Jason Bay went 0-for-4 to end a 14-game hitting streak, the club’s longest this season.