Backe to face Suppan in Game 4
Astros starter hopes to repeat his success of a year ago
HOUSTON -- Go back a year to Game 5 of the 2004 National League Championship Series. Cardinals-Astros at Minute Maid Park. Brandon Backe against Woody Williams.
Back then, the 27-year old Astros right-hander was making only his third postseason start. But with that series even at 2-2, Backe matched Williams zero for zero and allowed only one hit in eight innings, giving Houston a chance to win the game in the late innings, which it did, 3-0, on a walk-off three-run homer by Jeff Kent.
It's the type of experience that's going to help the baby-faced Backe when he takes the mound again on Sunday at Minute Maid in Game 4 of this year's NLCS against St. Louis right-hander Jeff Suppan.
"I'm hoping that last year's experience is going to help him a great deal," Astros manager Phil Garner said about Backe, who was 10-8 in 2005 with a 4.76 ERA in 26 appearances, 25 of them starts. "Obviously you still have to perform, but what he did last year against the Cardinals in Game 5 with our backs to the wall, he pitched very well in some of the most tense situations you're ever going to be in."
It was a different time and a different situation.
With the Astros clinging to a one-game lead in their race for the NL's Wild Card berth at the end of the 2004 season, Roger Clemens came down with the flu and couldn't start the last game at home against the Rockies. Garner turned to the virtually untested Backe, who had previously made eight starts that season.
Backe worked five innings, allowing two runs on five hits, and he was credited with the win as the Astros snagged the final spot in the playoffs.
Six days later, he started and was the victor in an 8-5 win over the Braves in Game 3 of the NL Division Series, again allowing two runs on five hits, but this time in six innings. With Clemens still recovering and the Astros winning that series in five games, the rotation for the NLCS had to be set with Backe and the since-departed Pete Munro opening the first two games in St. Louis.
Backe was blistered in a 10-7 loss in Game 1, during which he allowed four runs on five hits and didn't make it out of the fifth inning.
"Last year, we did have to go five games in the Division Series. so it kind of messed up our rotation so we could not start off with the big guys," Backe said on Saturday. "The team kind of was counting on myself and Pete Munro to get things started, and obviously we went 0-2 for the first two games."
Backe saved his best for Game 5. In eight innings, he allowed only three St. Louis baserunners. He retired the first 13 batters, the spell being broken when Jim Edmonds walked with one out in the fifth inning. In the sixth, with two out, Tony Womack shattered the no-hitter with a single to right and Larry Walker strolled to put runners on first and second. But like Edmonds before them, both runners were stranded.
Backe came out for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the eighth with the game still scoreless. Brad Lidge retired the side in order in the ninth and was credited with the win when Kent homered off Jason Isringhausen.
But Backe gave the Astros a playoff performance for the ages, giving them a 3-2 lead and sending the series back to St. Louis where the Cardinals won in seven games.
"It's just a big confidence boost," Backe said about last year's accomplishments. "Just the success that I had alone in the playoffs helps me relax, helps me just basically know that I'm not going to let the playoff atmosphere affect me in any way. I've been through it before, and I've also succeeded. So really it just helps me out having gone through that experience last year."
And now it is this year. The Astros defeated the Braves in four games in the first round and Backe made two appearances, one in relief.
He was the starter in last Sunday's epic 18-inning, Game 4 Astros win, although Backe was smacked for five runs on five hits in 4 2/3 innings and left with his team trailing, 5-0.
This year's NLCS rotation fell nicely into place with Andy Pettitte, Roy Oswalt and Clemens slotted in the first three games against the defending NL champs.
In Game 4, it's back to Backe and Garner hopes he draws on last year's successes.
"He can go back and say, 'This is the way I did it, I don't have to fool anybody and I can trust my stuff,'" Garner said. "When you do that under the watchful eye of everybody in the country and other countries, that gives you a certain sense of confidence."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.