Calm Astros storm past Braves, 8-5

Not getting ahead of itself, Houston a win away from first playoff series triumph

Baseball

October 10, 2004|By Ben Bolch | Ben Bolch,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOUSTON - The Houston Astros, on the verge of amending a playoff history that begs to be rewritten, would like to make one thing perfectly clear: They will celebrate nothing short of a series victory over the Atlanta Braves.

It would have been easy to get caught up in a towel-waving, foot-stomping moment yesterday afternoon at Minute Maid Park after Houston closer Brad Lidge punctuated an 8-5 victory in Game 3 of the National League Division Series with a perfect ninth inning.

But after Lidge struck out Marcus Giles, sending an already deafening sellout crowd of 43,547 into a tizzy, it was as if someone placed the Houston clubhouse on mute. No one talked smack even after the Astros had surged ahead, 2-1, in the best-of-five series.

"I'm not jumping up and down right now," said first baseman Jeff Bagwell, a member of four Astro teams that failed to advance past the first round of the playoffs. "I'm very proud of this club. But we have a tough Braves team to beat [today]."

Said second baseman Jeff Kent: "If you take the Braves for granted, you're going to get your butt kicked."

Indeed, Atlanta has rallied to defeat Houston in the postseason before, erasing a one-game deficit in the 1999 NL Division Series. But those Braves featured Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, two legends who have since moved on, and those Astros preceded Roger Clemens, the future Hall of Famer who today will start Game 4.

Pitching on three days' rest, Clemens, 42, will try to boost his hometown team to its first playoff series victory while reversing a troublesome trend.

In their previous seven postseason appearances, the Astros have played in only two potential series-clinching games - against the Philadelphia Phillies in 1980 and the Dodgers in 1981 - losing both.

"We've never been to the next stage in the history of the club," said left fielder Craig Biggio, himself a veteran of four playoff disappointments, "so hopefully we'll have something good to talk about [today]."

Carlos Beltran and Morgan Ensberg gave the Astros plenty of positives to discuss yesterday, with Beltran hitting a two-run homer and Ensberg driving in three runs. Beltran's homer off Paul Byrd in the third gave Houston a 2-0 lead, and after Atlanta rallied for two runs in the fourth, Ensberg drove in a run during a two-run fifth.

Ensberg's two-run double in the sixth that carried over the edge of third baseman Chipper Jones' glove and into left field gave the Astros a commanding 7-2 advantage.

"Seven out of 10 times I make that play," Jones said.

Atlanta starter John Thomson was done after four pitches, having re-injured a strained muscle on his left side, and six relievers left with wounded psyches after Houston pelted them for 10 more hits. The Astros, who extended their franchise-record home winning streak to 19 games, also drew nine walks and scored five runs with two out.

"We walked way too many people today," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "We need to jump out in the lead ourselves, get the big boys in the middle of the lineup to hit a little bit, and we'll be just fine."

Jones and J.D. Drew, who comprise the heart of the Atlanta batting order, have struggled in the series. Jones is hitless in 11 at-bats and Drew is two-for-12, his one hit yesterday coming on a pop-up that fell in the infield after striking the roof.

"We both feel like we're swinging the bats OK," Jones said. "We're just not getting them to fall in."

Houston starter Brandon Backe, a native of nearby Galveston, Texas, who grew up idolizing Bagwell and Biggio, did his part to help his heroes move one step closer to their first World Series. Backe, 26, gave up five hits and two runs in six innings during his 10th major league start, escaping a bases-loaded jam in the second by striking out Byrd.

"Today," Astros manager Phil Garner said of the converted reliever, "he pitched like he had been doing it for a while."

Andruw Jones' mammoth three-run homer to left in the eighth off reliever Russ Springer did nothing more than make the final score look a little more respectable.

Today, the Astros will try to do the same for their playoff record.

"We can't worry about history," Beltran said. "We just have to go out there and beat those guys."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Twins vs. Yankees

Best of five New York wins series, 3-1 Game 1: Minnesota, 2-0

Game 2: New York, 7-6, 12 inn.

Game 3: New York, 8-4

Yesterday: New York, 6-5, 11 inn.

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