With the win, the Astros took a two games to one lead in the best-of-five series and could clinch their first postseason series victory with a triumph Sunday at Minute Maid Park - where they have won 19 straight games. With
struggling mightily in the postseason, Houston has lost in the opening round of the in four of the last seven seasons.
But this is a different Houston team. Entering the playoffs the hottest team in the sport, the Astros boast great depth and it showed again in this one.
Primarily an afterthought on a loaded pitching staff at the start of the season, Backe (1-0) pieced together yet another quality outing in his 10th career start. The 26-year-old righthander, who filled in for 300-game winner
on short notice Sunday and led Houston to the wild card berth, was put in another tough spot after Houston lost Game Two in extra innings.
Backe responded with six solid innings, allowing two runs and five hits. He walked two and struck out five - including two of the three batters he faced in the sixth.
"This is just another dream coming true," Backe said. "I had fun out there and we played well and I don't think I could ask for anything else out of the guys. No words can describe it. It's just an incredible feeling and you can just feel the excitement in the air. I have been a fan of the Astros all my life and I am still a fan even though I am on the team."
has come up huge," Bagwell said. "He started here, got sent to the minors and has worked his way into the rotation and has pitched and won the two biggest games we've had all season long. It's really great to see."
Backe left an impression on Braves manager
"I thought he changed speeds really well and located his fastball extremely well," Cox said. "I thought he had our hitters off-balance, like a veteran would do out there. I thought he was outstanding."
Beltran staked Backe to an early 2-0 lead with a two-run homer in the third inning, but his biggest contribution may have been using his blazing speed to just beat out a potential double-play grounder in the sixth, when Houston scored three times to take a commanding 7-2 advantage.
Every Houston starter with the exception of
and Backe had a hit and five different players drove in runs.
had three RBI - including a two-run double that capped the sixth-inning outburst.
"(My play) kept us alive but to me, the best play, the best hit, was the one
had," Beltran said. "Two strikes, two outs and he hit the ball hard down the line and gave us some big runs right there. What I like about this team is that we don't just depend on one or two guys. Everyone is doing there job right now and that is just great to see."
The Braves, who entered this series 9-1 against the Astros in Division Series play, are in danger of losing in the first round of the postseason for the third straight year.
Atlanta was hoping to get a big outing from 14-game winner
, but the 31-year-old righthander continued to be plagued by a sore muscle in his left side and retired just one batter before having to be pulled.
came on and allowed four runs and seven hits in 4 1/3 innings.
"It didn't hurt when I was warming up, but I just couldn't pitch," Thomson said. "I don't know how to explain it. It just popped. Only way I could explain it would be like a trainer would tell you if you ever had your back cracked, you pop your back like three times. I was walking the stairs to go back into the dugout, and if I took a deep breath or moved wrong, it hurt."
"Your energy gets going pretty quick when you have to go out there like that," Byrd said. "John threw some bullpen, so I wasn't sure, but I knew I had to be ready to come in."
had three hits, including a three-run homer off
in the eighth. But Houston closer
came on in the ninth and struck out two of the three batters he faced for his first career postseason save.
"We thought we had a chance to come back," Jones said. "We were three runs down and we knew their closer is pretty good, but there was no doubt in our minds that we could score three runs. Unfortunately, he pitched good and got us down 1-2-3 in the ninth inning."
The Astros will seek their first NL Championship Series appearance since 1986 when they send Clemens to the mound on Sunday. Clemens has won his last four postseason decisions and handled the Braves in Game One but will be pitching on three days' rest.
"I'm not a fan of coming back on three days' rest, but I'm a fan of
," Houston interim manager
said. "This is one of the greatest pitchers in the game today, so I'm very comfortable asking him to do this."
Biggio opened the third inning with a single and Beltran hit his second homer of the series for a 2-0 lead. The Braves got even in the fourth on a solo homer by
and a run-scoring single by Byrd.
The game remained deadlocked into the fifth and Byrd got the first two batters before walking
followed with a double off the left field wall that rookie
misplayed a bit, allowing Berkman to score.
Ensberg delivered a base hit to left and Kent made a great dive to the plate, just avoiding the tag of Estrada.
With runners at the corners, Beltran stole second. Bagwell grounded into an out at the plate, but Berkman greeted lefthander
with a single and, after Kent walked, Ensberg doubled down the left field line for a 7-2 lead.