No lead is safe in Minute Maid Park's bandbox, so Morgan Ensberg's two-out, two-run double in the bottom of the sixth -- which opened Houston's lead to 7-2 and supplied the winning margin -- loomed large.
Against Atlanta lefthander Tom Martin, Ensberg, behind 1-2, turned on a 91 mph inside fastball and ripped a hard ground ball to third base. Chipper Jones, who's been solid defensively at third, wasn't holding the line and couldn't react quickly enough to get his body in front of the ball; he was forced to attempt a backhanded stop to his right. But Ensberg's whistler took a funky, short hop on the infield dirt and bounded over Jones' glove into the left-field corner, writing Atlanta's obituary. Ensberg, who also had a two-out RBI single in the fifth, finished 2-for-4 with three RBIs.
"Mo was fantastic today," said Astros manager Phil Garner. "Came up big. Got the big hit, runners on. He swung the bat very well, he's swung the bat well in this series as well. It's a big day for him and it was a big plus for us."
From the Bench
When Braves manager Bobby Cox tapped Martin earlier in that fateful sixth, it seemed defensible on its face. With runners on first and second, two out, Houston up 4-2 and switch-hitting Lance Berkman up, Cox opted to turn Berkman around and play to keep the game close. The splits bore Cox out: Berkman hit .272/.404/.432 against lefthanders this season, .329/.463/.606 against righthanders. So, not only does he hit worse, but he hits for significantly less power, and in this situation, an extra-base hit would have scored an additional run.
But Berkman grounded a single through short, and it quickly became clear that Martin didn't have his best stuff. He walked Jeff Kent, then let the aforementioned fastball catch enough of the inside corner that Ensberg could pull it, hard.
It's hard to blast Cox here, though: He had already suffered the misfortune of losing his starter, John Thomson, four pitches into the game, and had used his long guy, Paul Byrd, and his righty middle-inning guy, Antonio Alfonseca, which explains why Martin was left in to face two righthanders.
Carlos Beltran, plunked in the ribs by Juan Cruz in Game 1, said he felt more sore Saturday than he had on Friday. But Beltran's soreness affects him most when he's running or batting righthanded, he says. Hitting exclusively lefthanded in Game 3, he was 2-for-5 with a double, a home run, and two RBIs. ... Texans keep their priorities straight: An hour before Game 3's first pitch, Minute Maid was already jammed, with fans clustered around televisions and in the ballpark's sports bars to watch the Texas-Oklahoma football game. That game stayed on the press box TVs, too. It gets worse tomorrow, when the NFL's Texans have a home game at noon. ... Winning pitcher Brandon Backe, who came up as an infielder with the Devil Rays (and was obtained last winter for third baseman Geoff Blum), was converted to a starter midway through this season at Class AAA New Orleans. He grew up in nearby Galveston, Texas, a diehard 'Stros fan. "This team, the Astros, has been my No. 1 team ever since I was a younger kid," he said. "It's an awesome feeling. I can't ask for more. I'm living a dream, honestly."
It's still a series, but it's hard to envision Atlanta beating Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt back-to-back. Both will start on three days' rest, which shouldn't be an issue for Oswalt, who fired just 88 pitches and looked super-sharp in Game 2, but it might be for Clemens, who threw 117 in Game 1 and said he wasn't at his best physically.
No matter, says Houston catcher Brad Ausmus: "I'll take Roger on three days over just about anybody."
This is the true test for Clemens' legendary regimen of conditioning and total body fitness: How will his 42-year-old frame withstand another high-intensity start?
Also keep an eye on Brad Lidge, Houston's filthy-as-the-Paris-Hilton-tape closer. His stuff hasn't declined -- he overmatched Julio Franco, Rafael Furcal and Marcus Giles with 97 mph fastballs and 89 mph sliders in the ninth -- but did he need to work an inning with a three-run lead, after going 2 2/3 in Game 2?