Astros orbit the bases to blast off Braves, 12-3

In a first, Houston wins playoff series

Beltran hits 2 HRs

Cards, NLCS next

October 12, 2004|By Phil Rogers | Phil Rogers,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

ATLANTA - Mourning the loss of a fallen friend, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio finally seized their October moment.

Bagwell and Biggio, teammates since 1991, put aside their grief over Ken Caminiti's death to help the Houston Astros win a playoff series for the first time in eight tries.

Carlos Beltran was the leading man last night, delivering two bases-empty home runs and five RBIs in a 12-3 victory that eliminated the Atlanta Braves in the first round for the third season in a row, each time in Game 5 at Turner Field.

"Yeah, this one is obviously special," said Biggio, after dousing Roger Clemens with champagne. "We've been here before, never won one before. For the guys who have been around a while, you wonder how many chances you have left. So, yeah, this one is more special."

Houston advances to the National League Championship Series against St. Louis, and will have only one day to recover from the physical and emotional toll of the past few days.

Roy Oswalt and Clemens, who started on three days' rest in the last games of the best-of-five Atlanta series, may not be available until Games 3 and 4 against St. Louis.

One can only wonder how Bagwell and Biggio will deal with the sadness following the death Sunday of Caminiti, the 1996 NL Most Valuable Player who spent the first eight seasons of his career in Houston.

"We're both kind of devastated about it and feel terrible," Biggio said before last night's game. "We played with this guy for a long time. My wife and his wife are best friends. We know their kids. It's tough."

Biggio and Bagwell were among many people who had been there for Caminiti through substance abuse problems.

"I think Cammy would be proud," Bagwell added after the win.

Biggio and Bagwell had batted .150 in the Astros' last four playoff series, three first-round losses to Atlanta and one to San Diego. They weren't weighed down by that memory in this series, hitting a combined .357.

Biggio was 3-for-5 and scored twice last night as Houston pounded the Braves' exhausted bullpen, which had worked 23 innings in the previous four games. Bagwell hit a two-run homer as the Astros sent much of the crowd of 54,068 home early.

Beltran, a prospective free agent who seems unlikely to remain in Houston, should have the attention of St. Louis' advance scouts. He had four hits last night and was 10-for-22 with four homers and nine RBIs in the series. Three of those homers came against Jaret Wright, who was the losing pitcher in the first and last games of the series.

In this battle of tired arms, Oswalt held up better than the Braves' bullpen. He did not remind anyone of Josh Beckett in the 2003 World Series, but was good enough.

Oswalt made it through five innings, yielding bases-empty home runs to Rafael Furcal and and Johnny Estrada in the fifth.

"Finally. It's been a long time," first baseman Bagwell said of advancing to the NLCS. "We're happy with what we've accomplished so far. Obviously we have some more things we'd like to do, but it's a big day for us, a big day for the organization."

Houston poured it on in a five-run seventh after Atlanta summoned Chris Reitsma from the bullpen. With two outs, Biggio lined an RBI single to right and wound up at third when the throw home skipped away from catcher Estrada. Beltran followed with another single, driving in his third run of the game, before Bagwell launched a mammoth drive for a two-run homer.

Bobby Cox emerged from the dugout to make a pitching change, drawing a mock cheer from the big crowd -which then headed for the exits.

Before the seventh was done, Jeff Kent also drove in a run off Tom Martin, giving the Astros a 9-2 lead. They could have broke out the champagne right then.

It took 43 years, but the Houston Astros are finally postseason winners.

"This is what you can do when you've got special guys," said Clemens, who came out of retirement to pitch for his hometown club. "Every championship team has guys who are special like this. I'm so happy. This is what I came here for."

The Astros matched the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers for most series losses before getting their first win. The Bums won the World Series on their eighth try.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press and Bloomberg News Service contributed to this article.

Playoffs

NL Championship Series

Tomorrow: Houston at St. Louis, 8:19 p.m., chs. 45, 5 or Comcast SportsNet

Astros vs. Braves

Best of five Houston wins series, 3-2

Game 1: Houston, 9-3

Game 2: Atlanta, 4-2, 11 inn.

Game 3: Houston, 8-5

Game 4: Atlanta, 6-5

Last night: Houston, 12-3

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