Oswalt hurl Astros to 2-1 series lead

Sunday, October 9, 2005

HOUSTON -- Roy Oswalt pitched into the eighth inning and the Houston Astros beat the Atlanta Braves 7-3 Saturday night to take a 2-1 lead in their best-of-five series.

Houston can advance to its second consecutive NL championship series with a victory at home today. Brandon Backe will pitch for the Astros -- but Atlanta manager Bobby Cox had not announced his starter yet. He said he might bring Tim Hudson back on three days' rest.

Mike Lamb hit a tiebreaking homer in the third for the Astros, who after seven first-round exits from the playoffs are one victory from eliminating the Braves in the division series for the second year in a row.

Craig Biggio, the 39-year-old second baseman who has spent his entire career in Houston and last week agreed to a contract for 2006, hit three doubles and scored twice. Morgan Ensberg, who had five RBIs on three singles in a 10-5 win in the series opener, had a pair of RBI doubles.

Losing pitcher Jorge Sosa, a reliever-turned-starter, gave up three runs and seven hits over six innings in his first postseason appearance. After joining the Braves' rotation in mid-June, he went 7-0 in 12 road starts.

Oswalt had already wasted a two-run lead when he fell on the mound in the middle of his windup for an 0-2 pitch to Marcus Giles in the third. After getting up and shaking his head, Oswalt threw a 96 mph fastball that Giles swung at and missed.

That was Oswalt's first strikeout, and it got him back on track after a strange sequence in the second inning when the Braves tied the game.

By the time Oswalt left to a loud standing ovation with one out in the eighth and Giles on first, Houston led 7-2. Andruw Jones then hit an RBI double off reliever Dan Wheeler, but that was all the Braves got. Brad Lidge closed it out in the ninth.

There wasn't much time until Game 4, which is Sunday at 12:09 p.m. local time.

Atlanta has won 14 straight division titles, but hasn't made it past the first round of the playoffs since 2001. The Braves could go to Hudson, the loser in Game 1, in the hopes of sending the series back to Atlanta for a deciding game Monday night.

Oswalt might have been third in the Astros' playoff rotation, but the right-hander was the opening-day starter ahead of Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens in their hometown.

And it was also Oswalt on the mound last Sunday in the regular-season finale the Astros had to win to clinch the NL wild card outright. He beat the Chicago Cubs, making him the first pitcher since 2001-02 with consecutive 20-win seasons.

After needing only 12 pitches to get through the first three Atlanta hitters, and with a 2-0 lead, Oswalt endured a strange inning.

With Jones on after a leadoff single and Adam LaRoche with a 3-1 count, plate umpire Jeff Nelson signaled a balk on Oswalt's quick pitch. But, based on a seldom-used rule, the pitch was still live and ended up being ball four -- with no balk against Oswalt.

Ryan Langherhans' grounder to third started a double play that left him laid out on the ground. Ensberg's throw was off target, and Lamb was in a defensive position when he caught the ball up the first-base line. Lamb tagged out Langerhans, then shoved the runner aside with his left elbow.

Brian McCann blooped a 97 mph fastball into short left, right after swinging and missing badly at a slow curve, to drive in a run and make it 2-1.

Oswalt still thought he was out of the inning with the lead, so certain that he had thrown a third strike to Sosa that he was already hopping off the mound when Nelson called the pitch a ball. Sosa grounded the next pitch through the left side of the infield for a tying single.

McCann helped beat the Astros with a homer on Thursday night, the rookie catcher's three-run shot off Clemens in his first postseason at-bat putting the Braves ahead to stay in a 7-1 victory.

Biggio led off the first with a double and scored on Ensberg's first double. Jason Lane, after a foul ball hit so high that it hit the roof, had a sacrifice fly to put the Astros ahead 2-0.

Lamb's homer to right with two outs in the third put Houston ahead to stay.

After Sosa was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the seventh, Biggio led off the bottom half with another double and the Astros went on to score four times off four Atlanta pitchers. The Houston outburst didn't end until Brad Ausmus grounded into a disputed double play, one that brought manager Phil Garner out to argue with first-base umpire Gary Cederstrom.

Notes: The roof at Minute Maid Park was closed, even though it was 71 degrees and a clear night when the game started. Garner said the goal is to make it loud -- and it was. ... There was a crowd of 43,759, the largest in the stadium's six seasons.

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