07/13/08 5:55 PM ET
Backe does it all in win over Nats
Tosses seven-plus shutout innings and collects two hits
By Michael Phillips / Special to MLB.com
"I'm just sad I didn't get to slide," he said.
There's nothing soft about this pitcher. Not after throwing seven-plus shutout innings and backing it up with two hits and two runs in the Astros' 5-0 victory against the Nationals.
He grew up dreaming about making diving catches and running into the center-field wall. Becoming a pitcher put an end to those things, but he still gets to swing the bat every few days, something he's always preparing for.
"I can't imagine anybody working on it more than me," he said. "Everybody on the team knows I take pride in hitting."
Being that type of player gave him a nice perspective from which to watch the rest of the Astros. Defensively, the team gave Backe all the help he needed to make it through seven-plus innings of baseball.
Darin Erstad stole the show with a spectacular grab in deep center field, and another diving catch where the umpires ruled against him, but replays appeared to show that he had snagged the ball.
"I was joking with him that I didn't know he had it in him," Backe said. "That's what I saw five, 10 years ago in Anaheim."
It was a day where virtually all the players had something to leave happy about. Every player in the starting lineup except catcher J.R. Towles had a hit, and the team managed a hit in every inning except the ninth.
"We had some big two-out hits," manager Cecil Cooper said. "Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee each had a big two-out hit, and that was the cushion we needed."
Ty Wigginton started the scoring with a solo home run to left field in the second inning, his eighth of the season. In the third, Backe doubled, advanced on an Erstad groundout, then scored with on an RBI single from Berkman.
Berkman stole second base, which put him in position to score on a Lee single.
Lee then added the insurance in the seventh, chasing Backe and Berkman home with two outs.
"At that point it was huge, because it put the game away," Lee said.
Backe was relieved after walking a batter to open the eighth inning. He finished having thrown 107 pitches, shutting out the Nationals and working out of a bases-loaded jam in the second.
After a start that was cut short by rain in Pittsburgh, Backe was able to break through with a strong outing.
"To go 100 pitches and beyond, and into the seventh inning, that's what we all work to do," he said. "They say a quality start is six innings, but we want to get to seven regardless, maybe even eight. That's when your bullpen is as strong as possible."
Chris Sampson threw two shutout innings in relief, retiring every batter he faced. Sampson goes into the All-Star break with back-to-back dominating performances out of the bullpen.
But it was Backe who held the spotlight. He improved his batting average to .345, second only to Berkman's .347. And even on a hot summer afternoon, running the bases twice didn't distract him from his pitching duties.
"I condition myself to try to prepare for days like this," he said. "It seems like playing in weather like this helps you focus a little more and prepare for the task at hand."
That task at hand now for the team is rest. The All-Star break stretches until Thursday, giving the team four days off before they take on the Cubs on Friday night.
Michael Phillips is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.