ATLANTA -- Even with a nine-run lead, two outs and two strikes on a batter in the ninth, you can't really blame the Houston Astros for not being able to relax.
Not club owner Drayton McLane. Not manager Phil Garner. Not general manager Gerry Hunsicker. And certainly, not Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. All are more than familiar with the ghosts of playoffs past that have been rather unkind to the Astros in their 42-year history.
So it's safe to say the Astros' traveling party as a whole collectively held its breath until left fielder Jason Lane squeezed the final out in his glove, a Chipper Jones fly ball that finalized the Astros' 12-3 win over the Atlanta Braves on Monday night at Turner Field, sending the Astros to their first-ever postseason series win.
Looking back at the last two months, nothing has come easy for the Astros, so it's only fitting that theirs was the only Division Series to go the maximum five games, and it's also fitting that they had to close it out on enemy territory, in front of the second-largest crowd in Turner Field history.
But it's somewhat ironic that after all of the twists and turns the Astros took since Aug. 15 to even get to the playoffs, they beat the Braves quite handily, breaking out with a five-run seventh to cruise to the clinching win.
Still, no one could believe it until it was officially a wrap.
"It was just a little bit of relief," Bagwell said. "We've been backed up to a wall for most of the last two months and we've come through. Once again, we did today."
Garner didn't feel comfortable until his club recorded the 25th and 26th outs.
"I'm trying to stay focused," Garner said. "I told myself before the game, I didn't want to get caught up in all the hullabaloo. I was going to stay focused. Even when we had 10 runs on the board, I'm still thinking what I'm going to do with the bullpen. I wanted to stay with the game plan. I didn't feel comfortable until we had two outs in the ninth."
He wasn't the only one. The Astros' lead was only 4-2 in the seventh, when Garner pinch-hit for Chad Qualls, who had eased through a 1-2-3 sixth. Hunsicker peeked down to the bullpen and suddenly felt a touch of indigestion.
"I have to admit a weak moment when Phil pinch-hit for Qualls," Hunsicker said. "I left my seat for a minute. A two-run game and [Mike] Gallo was warming up in the bullpen and I thought, 'Oh boy, here we go.'
"But all's well that ends well. [Garner has] had the Midas touch. He's pushed an awful lot of the right buttons. We're in this business for results. And he got them."
The Astros accomplished several tasks with this win. First and foremost, they move on to St. Louis, where they will begin the National League Championship Series against the Cardinals on Wednesday. Second, they ended an 0-for-7 postseason series winless streak. And they also halted an 0-for-6 streak in postseason-series-clinching opportunities.
Carlos Beltran / CF
Weight: 190 lbs
Bats: S / Throws: R
Carlos Beltran homered twice to jump-start the offense, but it was a collective team effort in the seventh when the Astros erased the hopes of 54,068 fans, who were praying for a Braves comeback. The Astros scored all five runs with two outs in the inning, mostly off Chris Reitsma.
Biggio, 3-for-5 on the night, singled home Jose Vizcaino, and after Beltran knocked in Biggio with a base hit to right, Bagwell increased the lead to 8-2 with a two-run homer. That prompted Braves manager Bobby Cox to call for former Astros left-hander Tom Martin to face the switch-hitting Lance Berkman, who laced a double down the left-field line. Jeff Kent drove him in with a base hit up the middle.
The Astros poured on three more in the eighth behind an RBI single by pinch-hitter Lane and a run-scoring double by Biggio. Beltran capped his five-RBI night with a base hit up the middle off Juan Cruz, scoring Biggio.
From his front-row seat next to the Astros' dugout, McLane could not believe what he was watching.
"When we broke out there and scored all of those runs, it was more than I knew how to adjust to," he said. "We haven't had a lot of big leads like that this year. There have been a lot of tight games."
"This is only the beginning. We've never been to the World Series. We've got two more hops. We've been successful against St. Louis this year. We've done everything unconventional, so I'm sure this is going to be the same bumpy ride."
-- Astros owner McLane
For Hunsicker, the win brought back a flood of emotions, from disbelief to ecstacy, and finally to a bit of sadness, this being the day the Astros said goodbye to Ken Caminiti, who passed away Sunday.
"It was a little bit surreal," Hunsicker said. "Is this really happening? Is it finally happening? And then thinking about how we did this with arguably two starting pitchers, [Andy] Pettitte and [Wade] Miller, two guys we counted on to play huge roles this year, that haven't even been with us.
"And then the Caminiti situation. That went through my mind as that last out was made. That was extra special for Craig and Jeff to come up in a big way, and not to get too hokey with it, but Cammy would have been proud."
The final piece of the puzzle, Roy Oswalt, kept up his end of the bargain while pitching on short rest. The right-hander wasn't quite up to par, but he earned his first playoff win after holding the Braves to solo homers by Rafael Furcal and Johnny Estrada in the fifth. Oswalt threw 111 pitches, 73 for strikes, and did what Garner needed him to do -- keep his team in the game.
The blowout didn't begin until Oswalt was already out of the game, but the 20-game winner enjoyed the view from the dugout.
"I wanted to score more and more," he said. "Every time we got a man on third I wanted to score more, for sure. The bullpen came in and did a good job."
Now that the Division Series is in the books, the Astros quickly turned their attention to St. Louis.
"This is only the beginning," McLane said. "We've never been to the World Series. We've got two more hops. We've been successful against St. Louis this year. We've done everything unconventional, so I'm sure this is going to be the same bumpy ride."
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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