10/08/05 8:35 PM ET
Home is where the wins are for Backe
Righty thrives at Minute Maid Park, where he'll start Game 4
By Adam McCalvy / MLB.com
But at Minute Maid Park, his home ballpark in his home state, the Astros right-hander looks every bit the ace as members of Houston's vaunted "Big Three."
Backe doesn't know why. Going into his Game 4 start in the National League Division Series, he doesn't really want to know.
"There is no excuse," he said. "But obviously the crowd, being here in my hometown, coming from my house, sleeping in my own bed and just being on that mound over and over, I pretty much think that that's the reason why I'm a little bit more comfortable out there."
Comfortable? More like incomparable. Since joining the Astros' starting rotation down the stretch last season, Backe is 10-3 with a 3.12 ERA in home starts. Backe won his first seven decisions at Minute Maid Park and the Astros won each of the first nine games he started here.
As Backe put it, "I know it's 60 feet, six inches from the rubber to the plate, but everything else feels different."
He will be in that friendly territory when the Astros and Braves face off in a noon CT start on Sunday.
"I don't know if there's a difference in approach, but there's definitely a difference in what he does," Astros manager Phil Garner said of Backe's home cooking. "I think he attacks the zone much better here -- he has in the past.
"Perhaps the noise level here, with the roof closed, gives him a big plus factor, too."
The dome was closed for Roy Oswalt's start in Game 3, turning Minute Maid Park into one of the game's loudest venues. Already one of the club's more emotional players, Backe feeds off the bedlam like a running back looking for an extra gear in the fourth quarter.
That's exactly what Backe did in 2004, when he pitched the Astros to a win in the regular-season finale to clinch the NL Wild Card, then went 1-0 with a 2.89 ERA in three postseason starts, including 1-0 with a 1.29 ERA in a pair of home games.
He saved his best start for last. After losing a pair of leads in Game 1 of the NL Championship Series in St. Louis, Backe came back for Game 5 in Houston and twirled a gem. In eight innings, he limited the potent Cards to one hit -- a Tony Womack single with two outs in the sixth that broke up an improbable no-hit bid -- and Houston won on Jeff Kent's home run in the ninth and took a 3-2 series lead back to St. Louis.
"He's been through the heightened anxieties, the heightened state of awareness and the rush you get from being out there," Garner said. "I think we'd all prefer to have somebody with experience when we're going into these big games."
This year, Backe had that experience on his side. He missed 36 games with a strained muscle in his left side, but finished 10-8 with a 4.76 ERA, notching six of his wins at home.
Backe struggled a bit against the Braves, going 1-1 in two starts despite allowing 10 earned runs in 12 1/3 innings.
"He's certainly better than a fifth starter," Braves manager Bobby Cox said.
"I think we're both at a stalemate -- they don't know me, I don't know them," Backe said. "They're obviously talented. The numbers that they put up throughout the season were very good. I'm sure they're going to be just as excited out there as I am, or as I was last year. ... Hopefully, they get a little bit more jittery than I do and it hurts them."
The Braves were in for quite a 1-2 punch this weekend in Houston. First up was Oswalt, who hails from tiny Weir, Miss., and has a quiet personality to match. Then comes Backe, from the nearby Spring Break destination of Galveston, Texas. He's all emotion.
"There's always going to be butterflies before the game, even after the first pitch," Backe said. "I'm looking forward to those butterflies, actually, because it's really a good feeling to have them."
It feels especially good to a kid who grew up an hour from Houston and idolized Astros mainstays Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell.
Five years ago, Backe participated in the Instructional Leagues as a Tampa Bay farmhand, converting from an outfielder to a pitcher. The Devil Rays fined him five dollars every time he was caught with a bat, and he shelled out $25 before finally focusing entirely on pitching. Backe made a brief appearance with the Devil Rays in 2002, pitched in 28 games in 2003 and then was traded to Houston, where he enjoyed his breakthrough.
"You know, this is what I internally have projected for myself," he said. "In my eyes, I'm supposed to come here, I'm supposed to help this team win, and that's the way I've taken it."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.