Maid to order

Home park gives Astros big edge

HOUSTON -- The old adage says, home is where the heart is. But for the Houston Astros, home is where the winning is.

Minute Maid Park -- with its flip-top roof, Tal's Hill in dead center near the 436-foot mark and its cozy left-field Crawford Boxes 315 feet away and perched atop a 19-foot fence -- has been good to the Astros both during the regular season and postseason. The six-year-old yard seems perfectly contoured for Houston's predominately right-handed lineup and pitchers who induce opponents to keep drilling balls toward the distant power alleys.

It's been a recipe for success the last two years: 97 regular season wins and an 8-2 mark during the playoffs. And with the next three games of the World Series here this week beginning with Game 3 on Tuesday night, the Astros hope to use that recipe to wipe out a 2-0 deficit against the Chicago White Sox in the best-of-seven series.

"We've been very fortunate," said Jeff Bagwell, whose 15-year career, all with the Astros, spanned the last nine seasons at the cavernous old Astrodome. "We had our meeting to split up the [postseason] shares and we almost gave one to the first row of the Crawford Boxes. Our left-handed and our right-handed hitters have found that spot there.

"For our left-handers, it's just good hitting. For our right-handers ... we really don't care as long as it helps us win."

Chris Burke found those Crawford Boxes in the bottom of the 18th inning of Game 4 of the National League Division Series and the Braves were eliminated. In the Astros' three home games against the Cardinals while winning the NL Championship Series, lefty-swinging Mike Lamb, righty-swinging Jason Lane and switch-hitting Lance Berkman (batting left-handed) accounted for the team's three homers.

All, of course, went into the Crawford Boxes. Albert Pujols hit a Game 5-winning three-run homer about 50-feet above the Crawford Boxes, but then again, as Bagwell says, the ballpark giveth and the ballpark taketh away.

"We've always said Minute Maid can sometimes help you and sometimes it can hurt you," Bagwell said. "That's part of the thing that helps us. Sometimes pitchers come in and they'll give up a cheap home run and get rattled by it. Our guys understand it. If a ball goes into the first row, they don't get rattled because that's just the way it is."

The evidence may be somewhat anecdotal, but there must be some connection. The Astros hit 93 homers at home this season, 68 on the road. They finished 53-28 at home and 36-45 on the road, where they lost 21 of their first 23. Even more determining was the fact that 64 of their 93 Minute Maid Park homers were hit to left field.

That good Texas home cooking was the reason the Astros won the NL's Wild Card berth by a single game on the final day of the last two regular seasons. Both times, they clinched that playoff berth with last-game wins at home.

Roof open, roof closed, it doesn't seem to matter.

"It fits right in for the makeup of our club," said Roy Oswalt, who is 3-0 this postseason and has drawn the Game 3 assignment against Chicago's Jon Garland. "The fans get behind us and adrenaline is a big part of it. But we always seem to play well at home."

The team's management has concluded that the noise level inside the building is much more debilitating to opponents when the roof is closed. Thus, the Astros have played only a single home game with the roof open since late May, when they were 15-30 and began to slowly turn the season around. A decision hasn't been made about whether to play in the night air on Tuesday, but manager Phil Garner seems to have his own preference.

"We've been playing with it closed," he said. "It's very comfortable when it's closed. As far as the difference between playing home or on the road, I don't know. I don't have an explanation for it. It's certainly not the roof being open or closed, that's not it. We do seem to play better in our own ballpark, and we seem to be comfortable in our ballpark."

Never more so than in the postseason. Tuesday night's game will be the first home World Series tilt in the 44-year history of the Houston franchise. Since the downtown ballpark opened in 2000, the Astros have played 12 postseason home games and won eight of them, including a 5-1 mark the last two years against the Cardinals in the NLCS.

Like their current predicament, the Astros came home down 2-0 in the 2004 NLCS and swept the next three games. The Astros smacked four homers against the Cardinals in those games, three of them into the Crawford Boxes, including Jeff Kent's walk off three-run job that won Game 5.

They lost that series in seven games.

The last two postseasons, only Pujols hit a pair of homers in the same vicinity. Meanwhile, no other Cardinal found the Minute Maid Park seats. They had shots hauled down in the alleys near the fences and in the last series Willy Taveras even scaled Tal's Hill to haul down a drive hit by pinch-hitter Johnny Rodruguez, which helped secure Game 4, 2-1.

"That was a huge play for us in that game," Bagwell said. "I've seen Andruw Jones make a couple of plays out there. It's very difficult if you haven't practiced it to get the feel of running at full speed and then uphill without looking. It doesn't happen that often, probably four times a year, maybe. But if you can manage it the right way like Willy did, obviously it can help."

It may be something for the White Sox to ponder. Scott Podsednik's walk-off 403-foot homer into the front row of the right-center-field bleachers at U.S. Cellular Field to end Sunday's Game 2 may have been a loud out here.

Like the short left-field porch at Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park's Green Monster, the facets of Minute Maid have come home to roost. For the Astros, this is certainly where the winning is.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.