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Backe tries to continue big-game magic

Backe tries to continue big-game magic

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HOUSTON -- Last October, Brandon Backe cemented his status as something of a cult hero among Astros faithful with a stunning performance against St. Louis in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series.

The right-hander already had a loyal Houston following before that night, in part because he's a native of nearby Galveston and a lifelong resident of the area. But when the 27-year-old followed his strong stretch drive with an outstanding postseason capped by eight shutout innings against the Cardinals during which he allowed only one hit, Backe sealed his place in Houston's 2005 rotation as well as Astros fans' hearts.

Backe seemed poised for even greater heights this year, but things didn't go as well for him as a midsummer intercostal strain interrupted his season and contributed to a 10-8 record and 4.76 ERA in 26 games.

That hasn't stopped Backe from reprising some of that playoff magic again this year.

Once again, he held the Cardinals down as he held them to one run on two hits in 5 2/3 innings in Game 4 of the NLCS and is now 1-0 with a 3.64 ERA in six postseason games.

The Astros, facing elimination after losing, 7-5, in 14 innings Tuesday night, desperately need Backe to come up big again when he takes the mound for Game 4 of the 101st World Series and the Astros meet Freddy Garcia and the Chicago White Sox on Wednesday night at Minute Maid Park.

"That [NLCS game last season] is one I'll never forget," Backe said. "It was just one of those nights when everything seemed to be working for me. It couldn't have happened at a better time."

As far as the Astros are concerned, there's no better time for Backe to come up with an encore. They are down 0-3 and must win or the season is over.

"It's going to be tough for sure. Hopefully we'll get Backe going tomorrow, he's been good at home all year," teammate Roy Oswalt said. "We've been down all year and everybody has counted us out from the beginning, but we'll come out and battle tomorrow."

"We all know what he's capable of doing out there. We've seen it, obviously," Astros manager Phil Garner said. "He's an outstanding athlete, and when he's on, he's tough."

Backe is especially stingy at Minute Maid Park, where this Killer B seems to draw energy from the hometown crowd and a vocal fan club.

This year during the regular season, Backe was 6-2 with a 3.41 ERA at home and 4-6 with 5.83 ERA on the road. In the two years since Backe was acquired from Tampa Bay for infielder Geoff Blum, who coincidentally is with the White Sox now, the Astros are 21-12 in Backe's regular-season starts, including 12-2 in his 14 starts at Minute Maid Park.

"I like pitching here. I don't know whether it's because I'm from here or the crowd or both or what, but I've always been comfortable here," Backe said. "I think it just boils down to being out there on the field, knowing the way the field plays and also the crowd, the crowd being behind us 100 percent.

"They've really been in tune to the game throughout the stretch of the end of the season and obviously in the playoffs. I think it's just, like I was saying, home-field advantage. It's got a lot of different reasons why and we certainly have our own here."

The Game 4 start against St. Louis was the last time Backe pitched. The nine-day layoff is the longest he's had since he returned from the disabled list on Sept. 17, but Backe doesn't believe it will be a problem Wednesday night.

"I got myself on a schedule that I thought would fit best for me to start this Game 4," Backe said. "I probably had about three bullpen sessions in between. Two pretty good long ones and one real short one, like I normally do. I'm ready to go. I threw my short one [Monday], and [Tuesday] I'll throw a long toss, and it won't be any different."

Backe has been most successful when he has been able to spot his offspeed pitches effectively. When he controls his offspeed stuff, it makes his fastball much more difficult for hitters to center. More often than not, Backe uses the deep center field dimensions at Minute Maid Park to his favor.

"I won't pitch any differently," Backe said. "I don't know these hitters as much as they don't know me. I think I've faced [Scott] Podsednik a couple of times, maybe even [Paul] Konerko when I was with the Devil Rays, maybe a few of those guys, but not very many of them.

"But I'm just going to go about the way that I want to face them and [Astros catcher] Brad [Ausmus], he's going to definitely help me out. He's definitely seen them the last couple of days and obviously [Tuesday]. We'll have a game plan before tomorrow and just stick with it."

Jim Molony is a writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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