HOUSTON -- What do you get when you mix a team known for its late-game comebacks with a team whose closer is unavailable in the ninth inning?
Answer: Game 5.
The Atlanta Braves erased an early three-run deficit and scored a tie-breaking run in the ninth to beat the Houston Astros, 6-5, before a sellout crowd of 43,336 on Sunday at Minute Maid Park. The Astros' loss evened the Division Series at 2 and sends it back to Turner Field, where the two teams will meet for a decisive Game 5 on Monday.
Roger Clemens labored through five innings but left with a 5-2 lead, only to watch it go up in smoke in the sixth, when Chad Qualls gave up a three-run homer to Adam LaRoche.
In the ninth, Russ Springer hit Rafael Furcal with a pitch, and after the Atlanta shortstop stole second, he scored the go-ahead run on a base hit by J.D. Drew, who entered that at-bat 0-for-3 with a walk and two strikeouts.
"In that situation, I have to do my job," Springer said. "I felt good. There are no excuses, other than I missed in on Furcal and hit him, and left one over the plate and J.D. dumped it over second."
"I feel for those guys," Clemens said. "Sometimes you don't make the best pitch at the right time. This time of year, everything is magnified, but that makes it fun. You thrive on those situations."
The problem wasn't so much Springer's pitching. The issue centers around Brad Lidge, and why he was not available to pitch the ninth.
The saga began in the eighth. Setup man Dan Miceli retired Chipper Jones, but after he walked Johnny Estrada, manager Phil Garner opted to turn to Lidge, who was successful in retiring Andruw Jones on a fly ball and LaRoche on a strikeout.
Craig Biggio / CF
Weight: 185 lbs
Bats: R / Throws: R
But Lidge was in the leadoff spot, because Garner double-switched Jason Lane and Mike Gallo in the seventh. Garner, who often inserts Lane into left for Craig Biggio in the late innings, had the 6-7-8 hitters coming up in the eighth. Brad Ausmus singled off John Smoltz with two outs and advanced to third on Lane's bloop single to right, and Garner was forced to pinch-hit for Lidge.
"I've been doing it for a long time," Garner said of inserting Lane in left. "When you get later in the ballgame, I've made the double switch in that situation. I do it in a tie game, I do it when we're ahead. I don't do it when we're down."
Biggio, whose three-run homer in the second contributed to a five-run frame, fell a triple short of the cycle but had to watch Orlando Palmeiro represent the final out in the eighth after nearly legging out an infield single.
"You want to be up there in that situation but a move was made and that's how it goes," Biggio said. "I don't second-guess anything that happens. You just deal with the hand that you're played. Jason was able to come through with a big knock."
Collectively, however, the Astros couldn't take advantage of the Braves' bullpen, which was forced to absorb six innings after Russ Ortiz yielded five runs in three frames. They could not score a single run off any of their four relievers, including former Astro Mike Hampton, who pitched a scoreless seventh.
Astros' offense kicks into gear
*-Split season because of in-season player strike. First- and second-half division winners met in playoffs
"Our objective was to score early and score often," Garner said. "We scored early, but we forgot to score often. We didn't do anything else, really, the rest of the way. We hung around until they got back in the ballgame and we didn't do anything else."
Especially against super closer Smoltz, who teased the Astros by letting them get men on first and third with one out in the ninth before inducing a 6-4-3 double play from Jeff Kent.
"The problem is, when you get Smoltz in a ballgame, he's awful tough," Garner said. "He's been tough against us since he's been in the bullpen. So we needed to score something before we got there and we didn't do it, obviously."
"When you bring in a guy like Smoltz, who was dominating as a starter and dominating as a closer, you're going to struggle to get runs," Kent said. "You want to go ahead early so you don't have to see him later."
The Astros may want to implement that philosophy on Monday. Hoping to clinch the franchise's first postseason series win, they will have to do it in someone else's ballpark with no tomorrow on which to fall back.
"We would have loved to have done it here," Garner said. "The crowd was really into it. The place was rocking. We didn't close it out, but we've been doing things very unusual for the last couple of months. It's certainly going to be difficult, but that's what we've been doing, difficult things."
Said Springer: "We've been playing with our backs against the wall and we will be again tomorrow. It doesn't get any more against the wall than it is now."
"We've had to win one game for three straight weeks," Ausmus said. "This isn't a new feeling. We wanted to win at home, but we'll have to try to win it there."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.