10/14/05 1:50 AM ET
The newest 'Killer B'
Rookie Burke remains hot with clutch performance in Game 2
By Thomas Harding / MLB.com
Burke, who had homered in his last two postseason plate appearances, drove a Mark Mulder pitch off the wall in right-center field his first time up and dashed to third base, where he slid right by the awaiting glove of the Cardinals' Abraham Nunez.
"They must have made two good relay throws," Burke said. "I felt like I just beat it, and I'm pleased the umpire got the call right."
Everything continued to turn out right for Burke. He scored the game's first run on a passed ball, drove in a run and scored another in the eighth inning of the Astros' series-tying 4-1 victory in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series.
A part-time player who had to move to the outfield because future Hall of Famer Craig Biggio is playing his natural position of second base, Burke has been full of big swings. His 18th-inning home run in Game 4 of the NL Division Series against Atlanta put Houston into the NLCS. He also transformed Game 1 from a coronation of St. Louis starter Chris Carpenter into a nail-biter when he socked a two-run pinch-hit homer late in Houston's 5-3 defeat.
"He did another nice job tonight," Houston manager Phil Garner said. "He came through with a couple of big hits for us, a big triple that put us on the board and broke the ice a little bit, and then drove in a big run for us late in the game.
"It's great to see him do that."
A team never knows from whence its postseason stars will emerge. But at least the Astros know where Burke, 25, will be going once the postseason ends -- nowhere.
Last year, center fielder Carlos Beltran nearly hit the Astros into the World Series, but in turn he swung himself into too high an income bracket for the Astros. This year, Beltran has pocketed $23 million of the $119 million he'll earn on the seven-year contract the New York Mets granted him. Burke is lifting the Astros for $316,000, which is the going rate for a guy who finally has enough experience to be taken off the prospect list.
"He's our Mr. October," Astros catcher Brad Ausmus said.
On Thursday, the lower part of the Astros' batting order hit its way off the suspect list. Burke went 2-for-4 from the No. 6 spot. Shortstop Adam Everett followed Burke on the lineup card and knocked an RBI triple in the eighth.
"We've said all along, in order for us to win, you need to get contributions out of slots in the order other than 4-5-6," said Ausmus, who went 1-for-3 with a double and a walk from the No. 8 hole. "We need Burke, Everett, myself, Willy Taveras, we need these guys to contribute offensively in order for us to win, because we don't have the offensive lineup we had a year ago."
Burke didn't have much of a chance a year ago.
Jeff Kent was playing second and Biggio was playing center. Burke batted .311 in 22 regular-season games and had his moments. Despite this year's postseason ride, he still calls his first Major League hit in 2004 his career highlight. It was also at Busch Stadium, where his family could come over from Louisville, Ky., and his 90-year-old grandfather, Joe Zarrella, was on hand. But Burke wasn't active during the postseason.
Now Burke is making the most of his chances, no matter when they come.
Burke batted .248 during the 2005 regular season and made most of his starts against left-handed starters. That was the case against Mulder. Righty Matt Morris is scheduled to start Saturday's Game 4, which means Garner could go with Orlando Palmeiro.
"Oh, I'm just trying to get through tonight," Garner said. "We'll think about that a little bit later. Right now, I don't know what we'll do on Saturday."
By driving balls to left field that sail for homers and not curve foul, and by opening up more of the field with his triple to right-center, Burke is ready to swing whenever Garner calls.
"If that's the case, that's what I'll do," Burke said. "We'll see. Obviously, Phil's probably going to stick with what's been working, and if that's the case, I'll just try to do my best when I get in there."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.