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09/29/10 12:50 AM ET

Astros witness what they desire to become

Bruce's walk-off home run clinches Reds' NL Central crown

CINCINNATI -- Some chose to stay and watch, while others grabbed their bats and shuffled down the dugout steps and into a quiet clubhouse. Those who did hang around to see the Reds celebrate a division championship couldn't help but be a little bit envious.

After all, this is what the Astros desire to be someday. They can only envision how it must feel to be mobbed by their teammates at home plate, how sweet the champagne must taste in the clubhouse and what it's like to punch a ticket to the playoffs.

They were forced to be spectators to such a celebration Tuesday night after Reds outfielder Jay Bruce hit a walk-off home run in the ninth inning to beat the Astros, 3-2, at Great American Ball Park, but manager Brad Mills believes his young team can only benefit from the experience of playing well in a playoff-like atmosphere.

"There's no doubt," Mills said. "Any time you experience something like this and go through it, you become better off for it. You'd like to be on the other side of it, but at the same time it's good for these guys to go through it and learn to go through it like they did."

Bruce hit the first pitch thrown in the bottom of the ninth by reliever Tim Byrdak high into the crisp fall night and over the wall for a homer that sent the Reds to the National League Central title in dramatic fashion and to the playoffs for the first time since 1995.

Bruce ran around the bases with his arms raised in the air and was mobbed by his teammates at home plate while the Astros walked off the field. The Astros were in Philadelphia last year and were forced to watch the Phillies clinch the NL East.

"You never want to see that," Byrdak said. "We wanted to come in here and win all three of these games and force them to win a game against somebody else. You never want to see that. You want to be in the playoff race. That's why you play this game, to go out there and win. It does [stink] today."

For the five rookies that were in the Astros' starting lineup -- center fielder Jason Bourgeois, third baseman Chris Johnson, first baseman Brett Wallace, shortstop Angel Sanchez and catcher Jason Castro -- battling the Reds in a game that had a playoff atmosphere can only be beneficial.

"It was a great atmosphere and the fans were loud," Wallace said. "The biggest thing for us is it can serve as motivation. We want to play in games like that when we're at home with an opportunity to clinch. It's one of those things -- we'll keep our heads down and keep playing hard. We played well the whole time and they got a big hit at the end. It just shows us what we're capable of and what we can play for."

The Astros, who have lost three games in a row and six of their past seven, made the Reds earn it behind another strong start from Wandy Rodriguez. He gave up four hits, four walks and two runs while striking out eight batters in six innings to match Reds starter Edinson Volquez, who allowed seven hits and two runs and struck out eight.

"He did a good job," Castro said. "He got himself into a couple of little spots there, but was really able to minimize the damage and get out of a couple of situations, and that was big. Obviously, we didn't put a bunch of runs on the board, and for him to be able to bear down in some of those spots and get out of that, that's what kept us in the game."

Rodriguez nearly let the game get away from him in the sixth inning. The Reds had the bases loaded and no outs, yet managed only one run when Brandon Phillips beat out an infield hit to tie the game. Rodriguez got Bruce to hit into a 4-6-3 double play to end the inning.

"In that situation, I never lost my concentration and tried to put the ball wherever I wanted, and I made a good pitch," Rodriguez said.

Wilton Lopez threw a scoreless inning in relief, and Fernando Abad and Matt Lindstrom kept the Reds off the board in the eighth. Bruce, who struck out twice against Rodriguez in addition to his bases-loaded double play, led off the ninth against Byrdak, another lefty.

"In that situation, I had a plan that I wanted to do, and I didn't quite execute it the way I wanted and I left the ball over the middle of the plate," Byrdak said. "I wanted to keep it away from him. I had watched Wandy, and he threw his hard stuff and soft stuff away. It's a pitch I left over the middle of the plate, and a mistake you're not wanting to make right there, but, unfortunately, those things happen."

The Astros scored twice in the second to take a 2-1 lead on an RBI single by Castro and a squeeze bunt by Rodriguez. Reds center fielder Drew Stubbs, a former Astros draft pick, made the defensive play of the night in the third inning when he reached above the center-field wall to catch what would have been a two-run home run by Carlos Lee.

"That was a nice play," Mills said. "We battled really well. I thought the guys did all they could. We tried to put guys in position to be successful and they put a good swing on a ball."

The mighty swing by Bruce may have ended the Astros' night, but it had them dreaming of the future.

"You never want to lose, whether they're celebrating or not," Castro said. "Every loss is a loss. It's hard to see, obviously, but they played great baseball. We'll just keep grinding for these last five games we have and come out next year and aspire for that. Hopefully we can put ourselves in that situation next year."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.