HOUSTON — Only when Brandon Backe and Woody Williams were done did the hitters have any chance.
That’s when Jeff Kent stepped up and put the Houston Astros only one win away from the World Series.
On a night when pitching suddenly took over these playoffs, Backe and Williams hooked up in one of the greatest postseason duels ever. Kent ended it, launching a three-run home run in the ninth inning Monday night that lifted the Astros against St. Louis 3-0 for a 3-2 edge in the NL championship series.
Each team had only one single until the final inning.
“He was on tonight, just like I was,” Backe said. “When you feel as good as I did out there and felt in the rhythm that I was in, you just feel like nobody can hit you.”
Neither team’s sluggers did anything until Carlos Beltran led off the ninth with a single. Moments later, Kent hammered a ball off the limestone facade in left field.
Kent flipped his bat after he connected, tossed off his helmet as he headed home and said, “One more, one more.”
He was right. Because after the Astros’ third straight win, one more victory will put them in the World Series for the first time.
Game 6 will be back in St. Louis on Wednesday, with Matt Morris starting for St. Louis. Roger Clemens might pitch on three days’ rest for the Astros. Manager Phil Garner said he will announce his choice on Tuesday’s off-day.
“It was really a well-played game, well-pitched game,” Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. “Brutal ending.”
Too bad not many people saw it. Most baseball fans in the country got the Yankees-Boston game in the ALCS, and surely some people in St. Louis watched the Rams-Tampa Bay NFL matchup.
It was even until Beltran singled off Jason Isringhausen in the ninth and stole second with one out, prompting an intentional walk to Lance Berkman. Kent was up next.
“We’ve been struggling to get offense all day, both teams,” Kent said. “Both teams know how to hit, the pitching just shut us down all day long. To finally come up with a hit is big.”
Backe, who started the season in the minors, allowed one single in eight innings and Brad Lidge worked a perfect ninth for a combined one-hitter.
“I just got into a rhythm, a groove,” Backe said. “I had really good command.”
Williams matched him for seven innings, allowing Jeff Bagwell’s single in the first. Both starters struck out four and walked two in a rematch of Game 1, won by Williams.
“I just know I put up seven zeros, but I got outmatched,” Williams said.
Lidge pitched for the third straight day, adding a win to his two saves in the series. Isringhausen relieved in the eighth, and wound up with the loss.
“I knew it was out when it left the bat,” Isringhausen said.
Beltran’s record streak of hitting home runs in five straight postseason games ended, though he gave it a ride in his first at-bat. But he showed off all his other attributes, including two outstanding catches.
Sluggers ruled the first four games, combining for 19 home runs . Backe put a stop to the Cardinals’ fun, limiting them to Tony Womack’s two-out single in the sixth.
The Astros won for the 22nd time in their past 23 home games. Fans simply didn’t want to leave Minute Maid Park at the end, hanging around inside to celebrate.
While pitching dominated, Beltran provided the highlights until Kent’s third home run of the NLCS.
The All-Star center fielder and soon-to-be-free agent made the play of the game with two outs and no one in the seventh, racing to his right for a diving, backhanded catch to rob Edgar Renteria.
Beltran raised his glove, left fielder Craig Biggio lifted his mitt and Backe punched the air. To a standing ovation, Beltran casually trotted to the dugout and flipped the ball into the seats.
In the eighth, Beltran ran back and halfway up the quirky hill in dead center to haul in Reggie Sanders’ shot in front of the in-play flag pole, about 420 feet from the plate.
About the only thing Beltran did not do was hit another home run. He made a bid for it, hitting a long fly ball to left that Sanders caught on the warning track.
Backe and Williams both looked far from overpowering, mainly relying on breaking balls to get outs. Even so, they were virtually unhittable.
Backe, a former schoolboy football star in Texas and an outfielder in the Tampa Bay system, bamboozled the Cardinals from the start. He set down the first 13 batters before walking Jim Edmonds in the fifth, and did not allow a hit until Womack pulled a single past diving first baseman Bagwell.
After Larry Walker walked, Backe faced his first jam when Albert Pujols stepped to the plate. That brought pitching coach Jim Hickey to the mound, and he’d just gotten back to the dugout when Pujols popped up to end the inning.
The final out brought a roar from the crowd and chants of “Back-e! Back-e!” His father, Harold, was so fired up he charged over from his seat and gave a loud high-five to the ballpark public-address announcer.
“It was a strong, almost miracle performance from a guy who was born to do this,” his dad said.
Not bad for a guy who won only five games in the majors this season.
“He pitched a great game, it doesn’t surprise me,” Beltran said.
Williams, meanwhile, quietly and efficiently went about his business in front of a sizable cheering section. Born and raised in Houston, he’d gotten more than 50 tickets for family and friends when the NLCS returned to town.