Astros 8, Braves 5
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 National League Division Series.
Hoping to clinch the Astros' first playoff series win in club history, Roger Clemens will pitch Sunday on three days' rest for the first time this season. 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 home-field advantage.
The Braves got off to a bad start at Minute Maid Park. Starter John Thomson threw only four pitches before leaving after aggravating 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 41/3 innings.
"I know this team is hot here," Byrd said. "But I didn't feel like they were unbeatable."
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."