HOUSTON -- The National League Championship Series comes down to a best-of-three, and for the second time, the Astros are again turning to Brandon Backe for the "opener."
In a rematch of right-handed Texans who squared off in Game 1, Backe and the Astros will face Woody Williams and the Cardinals in Game 5 of the NLCS on Monday in Houston.
Backe did not figure in the Astros' Game 1 loss at chilly Busch Stadium. This time, he will be pitching at Minute Maid Park, where the 26-year-old upstart has enjoyed most of his surprising success this season. And this time, he will be pitching with momentum on his side, after the Astros came from behind for a 6-5 win in Game 4 that evened the series at two games apiece.
"Brandon's going to be fine," said Brad Ausmus, who will handle catching duties. "He's pitched in big games for us before and come up big."
Especially at home. Backe is 5-1 with a 2.66 ERA in 18 games at Minute Maid Park including a Division Series start. He is 1-2 with a 6.68 ERA in 17 games on the road.
What's that all about?
"Well, the crowd's here for you," said Backe, who grew up in nearby Galveston, Texas. "Every positive thing that happens, they're there behind you. You feel like they're your 10th player on the field."
Those fans were backing Backe before Game 3, when Astros players were introduced along the foul line. Backe got a roof-shaking ovation that rivaled the one showered on Killer B's like Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio.
"You could tell what the fans here think about him by the reception he got [Saturday] when they announced his name," Astros manager Phil Garner said. "He has pitched well here. I think it's a good call for him."
Sometimes athletes block out those ovations. Backe did not.
"I was aware of how loud it was when I ran out there," he said. "I was surprised to have it that loud. But it really hit me when some of the other players mentioned that same statement. It's pretty nice to have fans behind you 100 percent. To be appreciated in your hometown is something to be thankful for."
Is he ready to join the Killer B's?
"I've got a lot more years to be classified as a Killer B," Backe said. "But I'll take being a teammate with the Killer B's any day."
By now, Backe's back story has been well documented.
He grew up idolizing Bagwell and Biggio, and was drafted by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays as a position player. In 2001 he converted to pitching full time, and a 2003 trade brought him home to Texas.
Backe split the 2004 season between Houston and Triple-A New Orleans. With the Astros, he was used mostly in relief, but as injuries took their toll, the team called on Backe to make his first Major League start Aug. 21.
In a sign of things to come, Backe came through. He pitched seven scoreless innings against the Cubs that day and notched his first Major League hit, a two-run single.
Brandon Backe / P
Weight: 180 lbs
Bats: R / Throws: R
Down the stretch, Backe made nine starts, including the regular-season finale, when he pitched the Astros to the National League Wild Card with a win over the Rockies. Backe made his postseason debut in Game 3 of the Division Series against the Braves and won again to give Houston a 2-1 series edge.
Then came that start at St. Louis, when Backe allowed two runs in the first inning but took a 4-2 lead into the fifth. Williams sparked a Cardinals rally with a double, and Backe was eventually tagged with two more runs as his day came to an end.
"He has so much energy," Garner said. "I think experience is such a good teacher in the respect that when you have that energy, you feel like you're going to be able to go forever. Sometimes you can.
"But also you can wear yourself out, and you hit the wall quickly. I'm not sure that he hit the wall quickly, but I do know that he was fatigued. Probably somewhere in the fourth inning, he began to fatigue a little bit."
Can't blame the guy. Backe has logged 149 2/3 innings since the start of Spring Training. In his three previous pro seasons as a pitcher, he never pitched more than 105 1/3 innings.
"Honestly, I feel the same as I did midseason," he insisted. "The adrenaline that you have out there really pumps you up. ... My arm, I seem like I'm holding up. My velocity is still the same. When I'm out there, I feel comfortable. I'm actually feeling better because I've gotten that repetition over and over on a made-out schedule, that I'm actually feeling more comfortable out there on the mound."
Roger Clemens helped Backe with that schedule. Clemens is notorious for adhering to a detailed between-starts routine that keeps him sharp and conserves energy. Even for Backe, a guy with seemingly endless energy reserves, it has helped.
"It's something that each time he goes out there, he learns a little bit more about himself, how to contain all of that exuberance that he has," Garner said. "Each time he is a little bit better, each time is a little bit more of a learning experience. I think he'll improve."
Adam McCalvy 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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