Oswalt defeats Braves

Astros starter goes into eighth to give Houston 2-1 lead

Astros 7 Braves 3

Baseball

October 09, 2005|By STEPHEN HAWKINS

Houston -- Roy Oswalt stumbled and fell on his rear right in the middle of the field. Then he got up, reached back and put the Houston Astros in control of their first-round playoff series.

Not bad for a No. 3 starter.

Oswalt pitched into the eighth inning, striking out seven of the next 12 batters after his awkward spill, and the Astros beat the Atlanta Braves, 7-3, last night to take a 2-1 lead in their best-of-five National League Division Series.

Houston can advance to its second consecutive NL Championship Series with a victory at home today. Brandon Backe will pitch for the Astros against Game 1 loser Tim Hudson, coming back on three days' rest.

Mike Lamb hit a tiebreaking homer in the third for the Astros, who after seven first-round exits from the playoffs are trying to eliminate the Braves in the Division Series for the second year in a row.

Craig Biggio, the 39-year-old second baseman who has spent his entire career in Houston and last week agreed to a contract for 2006, hit three doubles and scored twice. Morgan Ensberg, who had five RBIs during a 10-5 win in the series opener, added a pair of RBI doubles to the delight of a boisterous home crowd.

"Last year we got to really see what our crowds were all about in this building," Biggio said. "They're your 10th guy."

Oswalt had already wasted a two-run lead when he fell in the middle of his windup for an 0-2 pitch to Marcus Giles in the third.

"My back foot slipped off the back of the rubber, and once my feet gave way, I started to throw the pitch anyway, and my mind said, `Change real quick, don't lob one up there and let the guy hit it out,'" Oswalt said. "I went ahead and took that one on the chin."

After getting up and shaking his head, Oswalt threw a 96-mph fastball that Giles missed.

That was Oswalt's first strikeout, and it got him back on track.

"He's a tough cookie," Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said.

Losing pitcher Jorge Sosa, a reliever-turned-starter, gave up three runs and seven hits over six innings in his first postseason appearance. After joining the Braves' rotation in mid-June, he went 7-0 in 12 road starts.

By the time Oswalt left to a standing ovation with one out in the eighth and Giles on first, Houston led 7-2. Andruw Jones then hit an RBI double off reliever Dan Wheeler, but that was all the Braves got. Brad Lidge closed it out in the ninth.

Atlanta has won 14 straight division titles, but hasn't made it past the first round of the playoffs since 2001. The Braves will turn to Tim Hudson in the hopes of sending the series back to Atlanta for a deciding game tomorrow night.

Oswalt might have been third in the Astros' playoff rotation, but the right-hander was the Opening Day starter ahead of Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens.

And it was also Oswalt on the mound last Sunday in the regular-season finale the Astros had to win to clinch the NL wild card outright. He beat the Chicago Cubs, making him the first pitcher since 2001-2002 with consecutive 20-win seasons.

After needing only 12 pitches to get through the first three Atlanta hitters, and with a 2-0 lead, Oswalt endured a strange inning.

With Jones on after a leadoff single and Adam LaRoche with a 3-1 count, plate umpire Jeff Nelson signaled a balk on Oswalt's quick pitch. But, based on a seldom-used rule, the pitch was still live and ended up being ball four - with no balk against Oswalt.

Jeff Francoeur's grounder to third started a double play that left him laid out on the ground. Ensberg's throw was off-target, and Lamb was in a defensive position when he caught the ball up the first base line. Lamb tagged out Francoeur, then shoved the runner aside with his left elbow.

After Ryan Langherhans walked, Brian McCann blooped a 97-mph fastball into short left to make it 2-1.

Oswalt still thought he was out of the inning with the lead, so certain that he had thrown a third strike to Sosa that he was already hopping off the mound when Nelson called the pitch a ball. Sosa grounded the next pitch through the left side of the infield for a tying single.

McCann helped beat the Astros with a homer on Thursday night, the rookie catcher's three-run shot off Clemens in his first postseason at-bat putting the Braves ahead to stay in a 7-1 victory.

Biggio led off the first with a double and scored on Ensberg's first double. Jason Lane, after a foul ball hit so high that it struck the roof, had a sacrifice fly to put the Astros ahead 2-0.

Houston hit seven doubles, an NL Division Series record. Biggio's three matched the individual mark.

"As he goes, we go," manager Phil Garner said. "But somebody's got to complete the job and Ensberg has been doing that lately. If Ensberg gets a couple of doubles and nobody is on base, we don't have anything going on."

Stephen Hawkins writes for the Associated Press.

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