HOUSTON — 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 NL series.
Hoping to clinch the Astros' first playoff series win in club history, Roger Clemens will pitch on three days' rest for the first time this season Sunday. The Rocket, winner of his last four postseason decisions, will oppose the Braves' Russ Ortiz in the best-of-five matchup.
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.
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 homefield advantage.
The Braves got off to a bad start at Minute Maid Park. Starter John Thomson threw only four pitches before leaving after reaggravating a muscle pull in his side that forced him out of the final game of the regular season.
Thomson was replaced by Paul Byrd, who took the loss after giving up four runs on four hits in 4 1-3 innings.
The return home did wonders for the Astros, who didn't have a hit over the final 5 1-3 innings and finished with only four in Game 2 on Thursday.
Beltran went 2-for-5 after going hitless in five at-bats in Game 2, Morgan Ensberg had three RBIs and Berkman, Jeff Kent and Mike Lamb each drove in a run.
Brad Lidge got the final three outs for the save. He recovered nicely from a blown save in Game 2, when he pitched a season-high 2 2-3 innings.
Andruw Jones hit a three-run homer in the eighth for the Braves, and Johnny Estrada also connected.
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.
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.
His final numbers were solid: two runs, five hits, five strikeouts and two walks.
The Astros also took off some of the pressure on Backe, pitching just 50 miles north of his hometown of Galveston, Texas, by jumping out to an early lead.
Biggio led off the third with a single and Beltran followed with the second home run of his short postseason career. His two-run shot landed in the mitt of a young fan, just over the outstretched glove of right fielder J.D. Drew.
Kent's RBI double in the fifth bounced off the scoreboard in left field, allowing Berkman time to score from first base. Ensberg singled in Kent on the next at-bat to put the Astros ahead 4-2.