HOUSTON — Jeff Kent flung his bat to the side and pumped his right fist as soon as the ball took flight, certain he was going to make a long-awaited trot around the bases.
He'd gone over this moment in his mind before, watching St. Louis' Albert Pujols and Boston's David Ortiz finish off big postseason victories by wading into a mob of teammates at home plate.
Kent fulfilled that wish Monday night, hitting a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth to give the Houston Astros a 3-0 win over the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5 of the NL championship series.
"Watching those guys do what they're doing, knowing the emotions that they probably are going through," Kent said, "I wanted to be those guys. I wanted to feel like that."
The Astros have a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series, only a win away from their first World Series in 43 years of existence.
Overshadowed throughout the postseason by Houston's "Killer Bs" — Carlos Beltran, Lance Berkman, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio — Kent finally seized the spotlight with his dramatic walkoff homer, Houston's first since April 2003.
That was the longest active streak in the majors without a walkoff. Kent also had the Astros' last one.
Kent perfectly imitated those Pujols and Ortiz highlights, rounding the bases with a smile on his face before tossing his helmet in the air and jumping into the waiting arms of his teammates.
"That's the kid in me that loves to play this game," Kent said. "I want to be the other guy who's having a great time."
It was a rare display of cheerfulness from the 2000 NL MVP and four-time All-Star, who prides himself on his cool — some might call it aloof — demeanor on the field and in the clubhouse.
"I've struggled with my emotions at times to try to control them while I played his ballgame," Kent said. "I think I've been able to do that better now through the end of my career. I let my parents and my kids get overly excited. I try to keep an even keel."
Kent has never been easy to embrace, often difficult with the media and extremely reserved around his teammates. He even scuffled with former teammate Barry Bonds in the Giants dugout during a game in 2002, and later said they'd tangled a few other times.
"I kind of tried to break the ice with him," said Brandon Backe, who pitched a one-hitter in Game 5 and has a locker next to Kent's in the clubhouse. "He's considered a guy that really doesn't talk too much, but I talk to him every now and then."
Kent's play this season has spoken louder than any words he might — but probably won't — utter.
He was the Astros' steadiest offensive threat this season, hitting .289 with 27 homers and 107 RBIs and setting a franchise record with a 25-game hitting streak from May 14-June 11.
He also became the NL career leader in home runs as a second baseman (278) and tied for another record at his position with his seventh 100-RBI season.
But Kent openly mused about retirement near the end of the season, with his two-year, $18.2 million contract with the Astros coming to an end if they don't exercise his $9 million option for 2005. The Astros have started grooming 2001 first-round pick Chris Burke to take over the position in the spring.
Kent will turn 37 next season, and has talked often of wanting to spend more time at home with his family and more time tending to his ranch in central Texas. He's already made plans to live there when his career is over, and sold his home in the San Francisco Bay area last year.
"I've got four kids at home I have more fun with," he said a few weeks ago during a trip to San Francisco, where he played for six years before coming to Houston. "I have a trailer full of motorcycles, a ranch I've got to take care of, a motorcycle shop I want to get going, a lot of other things I want to do before I'm too old.
"I don't want to live in a locker room my whole life. There's other things I enjoy besides baseball."
Kent, who helped the Giants reach the World Series in 2002, has hinted that winning it this year would be the perfect sendoff to his career.
"I needed guys around me to be better than me so I can be good," Kent said. "Now I'm on a team which I wanted to be on two years ago."