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Backe in the saddle10/17/2004 10:02 PM ET
By John Schlegel / MLB.com
HOUSTON -- It's a whole new National League Championship Series now, that's for sure. What a few days ago was a shutout is now a tie ballgame.
But the way the tide has turned heading into Game 5 on Monday, the Astros might have taken over the momentum as soon as the teams landed in Houston in the wee hours of Friday morning.
After their thrilling 6-5 victory over the Cardinals on Sunday knotted the NLCS at two games apiece, the Astros have won 21 of their last 22 home games, with most of that remarkable run coming during their charge to the NL Wild Card.
That dizzying stretch of home success will face its stiffest test Monday night, when the Astros send Wild Card-clincher hero Brandon Backe to the mound against Cardinals veteran Woody Williams in a battle of right-handers.
For October phenomenon Carlos Beltran, who socked his postseason record-tying eighth homer to push Houston to the victory in Game 4, bringing the series back home to Houston meant feeling like the Astros were in the driver's seat.
"After we were two behind, we were coming home," Beltran said after Sunday's game. "We knew playing in front of our crowd was going to be a little bit easier for us, and we really play well in this ballpark.
"Just being able just to get back and tie the series, I think the pressure is with them."
Wherever the pressure may lie, we now have quite the NLCS brewing.
The Cardinals did what they could to knock Roy Oswalt around and out of his Game 4 start after just six innings, but they came out on the short end thanks to clutch pitching by Astros relievers Dan Wheeler and Brad Lidge and, of course, another huge postseason moment for Beltran.
"It is disappointing," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "But, you know, that's why we're having the series we're having. I think everybody expected a close series. Sometimes you break their hearts. Sometimes they break yours."
Home is where the Astros' heart is these days, that much is obvious.
But the home advantage hasn't always been so stout for the Astros in 2004. Their 48 victories ranked fourth in the NL this season behind St. Louis (53), Atlanta (49) and Los Angeles (49) -- and it took winning their last 18 home games to get them there. Before that run, the Astros actually had a losing record at home.
More to the point: Although Houston swept St. Louis here the last week of September, the Cardinals reeled off five consecutive wins at Minute Maid Park in April to win five of the nine regular-season meetings here.
Besides, the Cards will have a hometown boy of their own on the mound when Williams takes the mound. A native of the Bayou City who attended the University of Houston, Williams will have 51 of his close friends and family among the 42,000-plus cheering fans on Monday night.
"I believe they're just a drop in the bucket, but knowing they're in the stadium and rooting for me, it's going to feel good," Williams said.
The Cardinals, likewise, will be feeling good about having the cagey veteran on the mound in such a crucial situation. Williams is 2-0 with a 4.50 ERA in two postseason starts, including the Game 1 victory over Astros.
But it simply can't be overlooked: The home-field advantage for Monday's game is squarely in the Astros' hands.
And Backe -- a Texas native who received one of the loudest ovations in pregame introductions here for Game 3, the first NLCS game in Houston in 18 years -- plans on soaking it in as much as he can.
"The crowd's here for you," Backe said. "Every positive thing that happens, they're there behind you. You feel like they're your 10th player on the field."
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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