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'Must-win' nothing new for Astros
10/10/2004 8:41 PM ET
HOUSTON -- The Astros' season comes down to one game.

Win Monday, and the team advances to the second round of the playoffs. Lose, and ... well, there's no use contemplating that, not if you have the mind-set Houston has shown all season.

The stakes for Monday's winner-take-all Game 5 of the National League Division Series between the Astros and Braves at Turner Field are crystal clear. It's nothing new for the Astros, who have been treating every game as a must-win opportunity for weeks.

"We've seen the end of the plank," catcher Brad Ausmus said. "We've seen the shark-infested waters below."

So far, Ausmus & Co. have been the ones with the sharp teeth, the ones who have seized the chance to soak in champagne, not salt water. Down and almost out in August, they rallied over the season's final six weeks to win the NL Wild Card and forge a rematch against a playoff nemesis, the Braves.

They split the first two games of the series in Atlanta, then won Game 3 at Minute Maid Park for their 19th consecutive win at home. They had Roger Clemens on the mound for Game 4 on Sunday, and he delivered a 5-2 lead after five innings.

The lead slipped away, but this postseason has been different than past playoff unhappy endings. This team, in fact, has demonstrated the excitement, competitiveness and resolve of teams pre-dating the group that has fallen quietly to the likes of the Padres and Braves. No, this club has flashed consistent moxy, the kind that could finish the work performed by Astros teams in 1980 and 1986, teams that played in the League Championship Series, teams that inspired Houston fans to make noise and believe.

In the postgame scene Sunday, player after player talked confidently about the dangling prize ahead, awaiting them on the road this time.

"We know we can win there," Ausmus said, knowing Roy Oswalt takes the hill for Houston on Monday. "We've been in a situation where we have to win one game before. This isn't a new feeling. We'd have rather won at home, but we have to go back to Atlanta."

Said Clemens: "It's never easy for this team. So here we go."

Oswalt, who started the Astros' loss in Game 2, will face Braves right-hander Jaret Wright, who started and lost Game 1.

"They were up against a wall today," Jeff Kent said of the Braves. "Now we flip a coin tomorrow and see what happens. I've been there before as a player, going to Atlanta needing a win, and we got it. We've won there. We know we can beat these guys."

Home cookin':
Astros' 19-game winning streak
Date Opponent Score
Aug. 23 Philadelphia 8-4
Aug. 24 Philadelphia 4-2
Aug. 25 Philadelphia 7-4
Sept. 3 Pittsburgh 8-6
Sept. 4 Pittsburgh 6-5
Sept. 5 Pittsburgh 10-5
Sept. 6 Cincinnati 11-5
Sept. 7 Cincinnati 8-0
Sept. 8 Cincinnati 5-2
Sept. 17 Milwaukee 2-1
Sept. 18 Milwaukee 4-3
Sept. 19 Milwaukee 1-0
Sept. 27 St. Louis 10-3
Sept. 28 St. Louis 2-1
Sept. 29 St. Louis 6-4
Oct. 1 Colorado 4-2
Oct. 2 Colorado 9-3
Oct. 3 Colorado 5-3
Oct. 9* Atlanta 8-5
*-National League Division Series

The Astros' confidence comes from their amazing stretch run. They were 6 1/2 games out of the Wild Card race with five teams in front of them in late August when they began their incredible home winning streak. Nineteen home wins later, the team was not only back, it was emboldened.

Phil Garner, who took over as manager after the All-Star break, attributes the turnaround to his players simply getting hot at the right time, riding Clemens' and Oswalt's right arms down the stretch.

Every game had must-win pressure. Most days, the Astros did win.

"We've been in a have-to-win situation many times," first baseman Jeff Bagwell said. "We found a way to do it this year and we just have to find a way to get another one."

They almost closed it out on Sunday in front of the home fans. Clemens delivered a sacrifice fly, Craig Biggio hit a three-run home run and Bagwell delivered an RBI single in Houston's five-run second inning, giving the team a 5-2 margin that stood until the sixth.

Braves first baseman Adam LaRoche tied it with a three-run homer off reliever Chad Qualls. J.D. Drew won it for the Braves in the ninth with an RBI single off Russ Springer.

Was "crushing" too strong a word for the defeat?

"It's a defeat. It's a loss. That's it," Biggio said. "It's 2-2 right now, and we have a big game to play. The last month and a half, we've been playing these games."

Said closer Brad Lidge: "No one here has lost any confidence today. You're not going to win every game you play in."

That is exactly what the Astros have to do in Game 5 if they want to extend their October quest against a different Braves roster than the one that had their number in three previous postseasons.

"I don't care about the history," said Ausmus, who along with Biggio and Bagwell has played the teams from the late 1990s and early 2000s. "It doesn't mean anything to me. This is a new club. They have a new club. Most of the players weren't even around in '97, '99, so it means absolutely nothing. It's something the media wants to make a big deal of."

And it's something Astros players are clearly tired of getting asked about. And why shouldn't they be?

"No one in this clubhouse cares what happened in the past," Ausmus said. "We know we have one game to win. We know it's the Atlanta Braves. We don't care what's happened in past playoff series."

So it comes down to Game 5.

"It's an elimination game for them, too," Lance Berkman said.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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