Thursday, April 28, 2011

2004 NLDS: Revenge of the Killer B's

Entering the 2004 season, the Houston Astros had never won a playoff series. Seven times, they had been to the postseason, and seven times they went home early. After convincing Roger Clemens to postpone his retirement to pitch for his hometown team, the Astros were hoping for big things in 2004. Clemens was brilliant, going 18-4 in his first season in the National League, but the Astros still finished 12 games behind the Cardinals. Still, their 92-70 record was good enough to give Houston the National League wild card spot.

Their opponent in the first round was the Atlanta Braves. Of course it was. The Braves and Astros had played each other in the first round three times in the previous seven years, and all three times the Braves swept the Astros into the offseason. The 2004 Braves were the Eastern Division champions for the 13th consecutive season, and most people thought that Houston's postseason futility would continue.

But the Astros' big free-agent signing paid off, as Clemens won Game 1 in Atlanta with ease. Atlanta won Game 2 in 11 innings before the Astros won Game 3 in Houston. Now needing just one win to win their first ever playoff series, Houston sent Clemens to the mound in Game 4. Despite being staked to a 5-2 lead, Clemens couldn't hold off the Braves, and Atlanta scored a run in the ninth to win 6-5 and send the series back to Atlanta for a deciding Game 5.

The Game
Roy Oswalt had been Houston's ace before the Astros lured Clemens out of retirement, so Houston was comforted in having him on the mound for the deciding Game 5. Meanwhile, Atlanta responded with Jaret Wright, who the Astros had pounded around in Game 1.

Game 5 started out much the same way, as the Astros scored twice on outs in the second and on a solo home run by Carlos Beltran in the third. The Braves fought back in the bottom of the fifth on a pair of solo home runs. Beltran responded in the top of the sixth with another solo home run, his fourth of the series, to make it 4-2.

By the time the seventh inning started, both starters were out of the game. The Astros' bullpen only had to hold off the Braves for three more innings to give them their first playoff series victory. Fortunately for them the Astros' offense, often their Achilles heel in past postseason failures, came to life in a big way.

For years, the Astros offense was known as the Killer B's, in honor of stars Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell. Just to add to the nickname, it always seemed like the players Houston added around them in the lineup also had last names that started with B. In previous years, the Killer B's had struggled against Atlanta's pitching in the postseason. But this year they were hitting, and in the seventh inning of Game 5, they provided the spark that knocked the Braves out for good.

It started with an rbi single by Biggio to make the score 5-2. Biggio came around to score on a single by Beltran. Bagwell followed that up with a home run to make it 8-2. Lance Berkman then doubled and later scored on a single by Jeff Kent (who apparently didn't get the "Killer B" memo).

At 9-2, the game was essentially over. The Braves added one run in the bottom of the seventh, but the Killer B's started another rally in the eighth, adding three more runs. The bullpen got the final six outs, and the Astros advanced with a 12-3 victory.

After beating the Braves, the Astros earned a date with St. Louis, the Central Division champions who were widely viewed as the best team in the National League. The Cardinals won the first two games at home, but the Astros didn't fold, winning the next three at home. Included in that was a remarkable Game 5, in which each team had only 1 hit entering the ninth inning before a three-run home run by Kent gave the Astros the lead in the series.

Going back to St. Louis needing only one win to advance to the World Series, the Astros instead lost two straight. They tied Game 6 with two outs in the ninth before losing in 12 innings. Then they took a 2-1 lead into the sixth inning in Game 7 before Clemens gave up three runs in the sixth to lead to Houston's defeat.

The experience from the 2004 postseason helped Houston, though. In 2005, they again beat Atlanta in the first round, then won their rematch with St. Louis in the NLCS, advancing to their first World Series. Though they lost in the World Series, the Houston and the Killer B's had left their mark on the National League.

The Rundown

27. Houston 12, Atlanta 3 (2004 NLDS)
28. N.Y. Mets 5, Cincinnati 0 (1999 NL Wild Card tiebreaker)
29. Cleveland 8, Boston 3 (1948 AL tiebreaker)
30. Houston 7, Los Angeles 1 (1980 NL West tiebreaker)

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