HOUSTON -- The Houston Astros certainly aren't playing in the postseason just to prove that they can actually win in the first round. But there is no doubt that their 8-5 win over the Atlanta Braves in Game 3 of the National League Division series on Saturday was convincing enough to suggest they may just be on the cusp of exorcising those past playoff demons.
The Astros will have a chance to win the best-of-five series on Sunday with 18-game winner Roger Clemens pitching on short rest. Manager Phil Garner announced Clemens as the Game 4 starter before Game 3 began, so Clemens was either going to try to help the Astros either force a Game 5 or eliminate the need to go to Atlanta for the finale.
After Saturday's performance, the Astros have a chance not only to avoid the hassle of returning to Atlanta on Monday, but they also could record their first postseason series win in franchise history on their own home turf, where they haven't lost since Aug. 22.
But while the immediate future looks bright for the Astros, don't ask anyone in the home clubhouse at Minute Maid Park to talk about it. Because to them, the series is anything but a wrap.
"I'm not jumping up and down right now," Jeff Bagwell said. "I'm very proud of this club. But we have a tough Braves team to beat tomorrow. The Braves are not going away. They didn't go away the other day and they're not going to go away tomorrow. It's nice to be up 2-1, but there is still work to do."
Traditionally, Oct. 9 is not a great day in Houston baseball history. This was the day in 2001 when Chipper Jones hit a tie-breaking three-run homer off Billy Wagner to lead the Braves to a 7-4 Game 1 victory. In 1999, Oct. 9 meant the final Major League game held at the Astrodome, as the Astros lost to the Braves, 7-5, in the decisive Division Series Game 4.
But as the longtime veterans of this club have been saying ever since they clinched the Wild Card last Sunday, this is a different team. In past years, they didn't have Jeff Kent or Carlos Beltran. Or Brad Lidge. Or Brandon Backe, for that matter.
And that's too bad, because all contributed to Saturday's win -- their 19th straight at home -- before a standing-room-only crowd of 43,547.
Astros' offense kicks into gear
*-Split season because of in-season player strike. First- and second-half division winners met in playoffs
The Astros relied on home runs to help them to their landslide 9-3 victory in Game 1, and long balls represented their only runs in their Game 2 loss. But in Game 3, the Astros enjoyed a little bit of everything, from a Beltran two-run homer that gave the Astros their first lead to a slew of two-base and two-out hits that slowly, but efficiently, ran up the score.
"That's what winning teams do," Bagwell said. "You get two-out hits and score five runs. Those are big runs and can really deflate the other team."
"We had some guys on base," Brad Ausmus said. "There were big hits and there were a couple bounces that went our way. It certainly was a team effort, but it's been a complete effort for the entire season. Today was indicative of the type of team this is."
Buoyed by a stellar outing from rookie Backe, the Astros broke a 2-2 tie in the fifth behind an RBI double from Kent. Morgan Ensberg followed with a base hit to left, and Kent perfectly positioned his headfirst slide into home, allowing him to avoid catcher Johnny Estrada's tag by inches.
The Astros added three in the sixth -- all with two outs -- behind an RBI single by Lance Berkman and a two-run double by Ensberg, who is hitting .400 in three playoff games with four RBIs.
"'Mo' was fantastic today," manager Phil Garner said. "As a matter of fact, I'm a little disappointed. I thought he was going to do it in the last game, but he did it today. He came up big. It's a big day for him and it was a big plus for us."
Of the Astros' 13 extra-base hits in the Division Series, five occurred on Saturday.
Carlos Beltran / CF
Weight: 190 lbs
Bats: S / Throws: R
"You want to be in a situation where you have a man in scoring position, no matter how many outs," Beltran said. "You just want to get the job done. We're doing a good job with that."
As it turned out, the Astros would need most of those extra runs in the eighth, because Andruw Jones knocked a three-run homer off Russ Springer to bring the Braves within three runs of tying the game.
That put Lidge in line for his first career postseason save, and the closer did it in typical fashion, using 12 pitches in a 1-2-3 inning that included two strikeouts.
"I went to my fastball more today," Lidge said. "I wanted to throw again, anyway. I wanted to get back on the mound as soon as I could after Game 2, to fix myself mechanically. I felt out of sorts in my last outing."
The playoff win was the Astros' first at Minute Maid Park and their first in Houston since 1986. They had lost their last four home playoff games and their last six Game 3s dating back to 1981.
But the Astros don't want to hear about the past. And, quite frankly, they don't want to talk about their future, if it means showing any confidence at all that this series will be over after Clemens pitches against the Braves on Sunday.
"It's a good feeling confidence-wise," Craig Biggio said of Clemens' start. "He's been there, he's been through the war before and he's done it. Getting him out there tomorrow is a huge thing, but [Russ] Ortiz has pitched well against us, too. We're not getting too carried away."
"This is game-to-game," Ausmus said. "It's nice to have a 2-1 lead, but we've got a game tomorrow and that game is just as important, if not more important, because the clock's ticking in a five-game series."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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