- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 19, 2004

HOUSTON — On a night when pitching suddenly took over the National League playoffs, someone was bound to get a hit. Fortunately for the Houston Astros, Jeff Kent stepped up.

After Brandon Backe and Woody Williams dueled in the greatest games of their careers — and among the best in postseason history — Kent launched a three-run homer in the ninth inning last night that lifted the Astros over St. Louis 3-0 for a 3-2 edge in the National League Championship Series.

Each team had only one hit until the final inning. But that quickly changed when Carlos Beltran opened the ninth with a single off Jason Isringhausen.

“We’ve been struggling to get offense all day, both teams,” Kent said. “Both teams know how to hit, the pitching just shut us down all day long. To finally come up with a hit is big.”

Beltran stole second with one out, prompting an intentional walk to Lance Berkman. Kent then swung, flipping his bat after he connected.

Kent tossed off his helmet as he headed home and said, “One more, one more.” He was right, because one more victory will put Houston in the World Series for the first time ever.

Backe, who started the season in the minors, allowed one single in eight innings and Brad Lidge worked a perfect ninth for a combined one-hitter.

“I just got into a rhythm, a groove,” Backe said. “I had really good command.”

Now, Game6 will be back in St. Louis tomorrow, with Matt Morris starting for St. Louis. Roger Clemens may pitch on three days’ rest for the Astros — manager Phil Garner said he will announce his choice today.

“It was really a well-played game, well-pitched game,” Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. “Brutal ending.”

Beltran’s record streak of homering in five straight postseason games ended, though he gave it a ride in his first at-bat. But he showed off all his other attributes, making two outstanding catches.

Sluggers had ruled the first four games, combining for 19 homers. Backe put a stop to the Cardinals’ fun, limiting them to Tony Womack’s two-out single in the sixth.

Williams matched him for seven innings, allowing Jeff Bagwell’s single in the first.

The Astros won for the 22nd time in their last 23 home games. And if this was going to be their last showing at Minute Maid Park, it was a great one.

While pitching dominated, Beltran provided the highlights.

The All-Star center fielder and soon-to-be-free agent made the play of the game with two outs and no one in the seventh, racing to his right for a diving, backhanded catch to rob Edgar Renteria.

Beltran raised his glove, left fielder Craig Biggio lifted his mitt and Backe punched the air. To a standing ovation, Beltran casually trotted to the dugout and flipped the ball into the seats.

In the eighth, Beltran ran back and halfway up the quirky hill in dead center to haul in Reggie Sanders’ shot in front of the in-play flag pole, about 420 feet from the plate.

Backe and Williams both looked far from overpowering, mainly relying on breaking balls to get outs. Even so, they were virtually unhittable.

Backe, a former schoolboy football star in Texas and an outfielder in the Tampa Bay system, bamboozled the Cardinals from the start. He set down the first 13 batters before walking Jim Edmonds in the fifth, and did not allow a hit until Womack pulled a single past diving first baseman Bagwell.

After Larry Walker walked, Backe faced his first jam when Albert Pujols stepped to the plate. That brought pitching coach Jim Hickey to the mound, and he’d just gotten back to the dugout when Pujols popped up to end the inning.

The final out brought a roar from the crowd and chants of “Back-e! Back-e!” His father, Harold, was so fired up he charged over from his seat and gave a loud high-five to the ballpark public-address announcer.

“It was a strong, almost miracle performance from a guy who was born to do this,” his dad said.

Williams, meanwhile, quietly and efficiently went about his business in front of a sizable cheering section. Born and raised in Houston, he’d gotten more than 50 tickets for family and friends when the NLCS returned to town.

Williams gave up a sharp single up the middle to Bagwell in the first inning, and little else. He worked around a couple of walks, and escaped his only problem by retiring Jose Vizcaino on a grounder with two on to end the fourth.

As always, the Cardinals’ stellar defense helped out.

All-Star third baseman Scott Rolen made a diving stop and easily gunned out Bagwell from his knees, and Pujols made a diving stop and quick flip to Williams to get Beltran. In the seventh, Sanders cut over into the gap and reached up to grab Kent’s leadoff liner.

Then again, great gloves are another hallmark of the Cardinals. They have not made in error in nine playoff games this year.

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