10/08/2004 7:50 PM ET
Backe back in big-game spotlight
Converted outfielder clinched Astros' playoff berth
By Adam McCalvy / MLB.com
|Brandon Backe found a home at Minute Maid Park this year, going 4-1 with a 2.61 ERA. (David J. Phillip/AP)
HOUSTON -- For the second time in six days, Brandon Backe will pitch the biggest game of his life.
It's the same Brandon Backe who grew up an Astros fan in nearby Galveston, Texas, idolizing guys like Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio and suffering along with their playoff frustrations.
The same Backe who pitched Bagwell, Biggio and the Astros into this position by beating the Colorado Rockies on the final day of the regular season.
Now he is Houston's starter for Game 3 of the National League Division Series, set to face the Braves on Saturday at Minute Maid Park.
Does Backe have another career day in that right arm?
"I've dreamt of this situation before, time after time," said Backe, a high-energy 26-year-old. "But never did I think that it would happen this soon."
And never did he think it would happen this way.
Tampa Bay drafted Backe (pronounced BACK-ee) in the 18th round of the 1998 First-Year Player Draft as an outfielder, and that's what he was for his first three professional seasons.
After the 2000 season, Backe was asked to attend instructional leagues. And he was asked to transform into a pitcher.
"I didn't like the idea," he said.
Three days later, he agreed. Three years later, after a trade that sent him to his hometown Astros, Backe finds himself pitching two of the Astros' biggest games of the season.
Manager Phil Garner tabbed Backe to start Sunday's regular-season finale against the Rockies when Roger Clemens came down with a wicked stomach flu. Backe responded, driving in two runs and pitching Houston to a 5-3 win that clinched the NL Wild Card.
"I guarantee that was the biggest game of his life, unless there was one in Little League or down there in Galveston or something like that," joked Bagwell. "It was the biggest game of his life, and he pitched great."
Now, the Astros are counting on Backe to come through against the Braves in Game 3. After splitting the series' first two games in Atlanta, Houston returns to the friendly confines of Minute Maid Park, where the team won its final 18 home games to make a surprising run for the Wild Card.
"He's still learning, but I think he's going to give us an opportunity to win the game," said catcher Brad Ausmus, who homered in Game 1 and will handle Backe on Saturday.
Said Clemens: "He'll be fine. He's going to go out and have fun. I think he's really enjoying this. Our everyday guys are excited about being back at home here, and we expect the crowd to be extremely loud, and we're looking forward to it."
Home has been kind to Backe. He was 4-1 with a 2.61 ERA in 17 appearances at Minute Maid Park this season and 1-2 with a 6.52 ERA in 16 appearances on the road.
"He's pitched well for us down the stretch, and particularly well at home, so I think he feels comfortable here," Garner said. "When you look at him, he looks like he's somewhat nervous, but he has this exuberance and he has a lot of youthful energy. I think that's good."
In 33 big league appearances this season, nine of them starts, Backe went 5-3 with a 4.30 ERA and a 2-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He pitched against Atlanta twice during the regular season, both times in relief, allowing one run in one inning.
He is admittedly a work in progress, but so far he has worked out.
"He really wasn't on the radar screen when I came on," said Garner, who took the helm just after the All-Star break. "I just saw the name and he was mentioned, but he was down the depth chart a little bit. Obviously, he stepped up. The one thing people say is that you're going to like this guy's energy, and you do. He comes to the ballpark full of energy."
Too much energy, sometimes.
"He goes crazy," Garner said.
On Saturday, Backe will have to keep that in check.
His routine was to begin Friday night with a steak dinner, followed by a few hours' sleep. An hour before game time, Backe planned to work out some of that nervous energy.
"I usually go in the weight room and have a little light workout to burn some energy," Backe said. "I get a sweat going and kind of just get myself wound up where I'm a little -- not tired -- but just burn some energy already before I get out there on the field."
There is a lot at stake, and Backe declared himself up to the challenge.
"My whole life, I've been groomed to be in that situation," he said. "That's the way I take it. Back in Little League, playing championship games, that's a lot of pressure when you're that age. I imagine it's going to be pretty close to that, but a little bit more.
"Like I said, it's a dream come true. I've been watching the Astros ever since I was a little kid. Bagwell and Biggio, I've said it time and time again, that those guys are my heroes. And now they're my teammates. So it's special to be playing here and have my friends and family able to come to the game. It's really special."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.