Astros 12, Braves 3

As the final pitches of the National League Division Series played out Monday night at Turner Field, the eye was drawn automatically to Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, the Houston Astros' venerable leaders who had never known October fulfillment before now, but who had known plenty of loss. As Bagwell kicked at the infield dirt and Biggio hung on the dugout rail at the end of this blowout win, the years were melting away, and they were young again, and they had never been beaten.

The first postseason series victory in the history of the Astros' franchise was not as easily won as Monday night's 12-3 score in Game 5 of the NLDS would indicate. Bagwell, Biggio and mates were within one swing of trailing the game and series to the overmatched but game Atlanta Braves as late as the fifth inning.

But thanks to the exploits of one of the newest Astros -- center fielder Carlos Beltran, who bashed two homers and drove in five runs -- the franchise's old guard could put behind a career's worth of October failures and finally spray the champagne.

The Astros move on to play the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Championship Series, beginning Wednesday in St. Louis, while the Braves must contemplate another bitter October ending, another round of organizational soul-searching that almost certainly will lend them no answers.

The second of Beltran's two homers (and his fourth in the series) came in the top of the sixth inning -- a wall-scraper that barely cleared the yellow line in right field -- giving the Astros a 4-2 lead and halting the Braves' momentum at a time when it threatened to blow the Astros out of town.

Just a half-inning earlier, Turner Field had begun to roar to life when solo homers by Rafael Furcal and Johnny Estrada off Astros starter Roy Oswalt had trimmed the Braves' deficit from 3-0 to 3-2.

Beltran, who was acquired in mid-June from Kansas City, dominated the series in a way that will make Astros fans weep when he signs with the New York Yankees this winter. In addition to his homers on Monday, he added a clutch RBI single during the Astros' pivotal, five-run seventh inning that put away the game, then two more during eighth-inning garbage time.

So bleak and miserable was the Astros' postseason history -- seven series, seven losses -- that Beltran, in a mere five games, has taken over the franchise's all-time lead in career postseason homers.

In a poignant twist, the previous franchise record of three belonged to Ken Caminiti, the news of whose passing Sunday at the age of 41 confronted the Astros following their loss in Houston in Game 4. Several senior Astros, including Biggio and Bagwell, were close friends of Caminiti's and spoke passionately before Monday night's game about his death.

The Astros claimed to have been immune from the pressures of an elimination game such as this one, having been through, in their estimation, about 50 of these games in the past eight weeks. Since being left for dead in mid-August, the Astros have played every game as if their next loss would eliminate them, and they went on to produce a 36-10 stretch run and, now, a hard-fought victory over the Braves.

Oswalt, the latest pitcher attempting to beat overwhelming odds by pitching on three days' rest -- since 1999, pitchers were a combined 7-20 in the postseason when pitching on short rest -- earned the victory with five gutsy innings, each one of which forced him to work long and hard. He departed with a 4-2 lead.

And unlike the day before -- when Roger Clemens, also pitching on three days' rest, left after five innings with a 5-2 lead, only to see it evaporate -- the Astros' bullpen hung onto the lead.

If they could step back for one second from their euphoria and their growing sense of destiny, it is possible that even the Astros, locked though they were in an unforgiving win-or-die battle for the past week, could find room in their hearts to feel a pang of sympathy for the poor souls in the other dugout, whose own sense of destiny must feel like an overwhelming burden.

It was the Braves' fourth first-round exit in the last five years. Worse, since the opening of Turner Field in 1997, the Braves have been forced to watch a visiting team celebrate a playoff clincher on the Braves' own home turf in every October except for 1999, when the Yankees clinched the World Series at Yankee Stadium.

It took an elimination game for the people of greater Atlanta, immersed as they are in another fine college football season, to take notice of the Braves -- who, fans have come to realize, tease them every year around this time. In Games 1 and 2 last week, entire sections of the upper deck were empty.

But on Monday night, those sections were filled with 54,068 loud, raucous, tomahawk-chopping zealots, making it the second-largest crowd in the stadium's history.

In the end, the Braves simply didn't have enough arms -- something that typically has not been said about Atlanta teams in October -- to stand up to Houston's. Starter Jaret Wright, who absorbed his second loss of the series, teetered on the brink of destruction throughout his 51/3 innings. But things only got worse once he was removed, as one Braves reliever after another got pounded by Houston's deep lineup, turning a taut game into a blowout.

It speaks to the Braves' tenacity that they trailed on the scoreboard at the end of 41 out of a possible 45 innings played in the series, yet still pushed the Astros to the midpoint of the last possible game before petering out.

Carlos Beltran celebrates after hitting a home run in the third inning. Beltran drove in five runs.The Astros form a mob at the mound after clinching the franchise's first playoff series victory in eight attempts.