Astros even series with Braves

Astros even series with Braves

HOUSTON -- Brandon Backe can still vividly remember being a teenager watching Astros games from the stands at the Astrodome, cheering for his favorite players, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio.

But never could Backe have imagined that he'd be on the mound for one of Biggio's final games, pitching to one of his two baseball heroes in a game that carried little meaning, standings-wise, but meant everything to him, his catcher and 43,624 fans at Minute Maid Park.

For two teams completely out of contention, this game provided plenty of excitement. The Astros prevailed over the Braves, 3-2, Backe turned in his most convincing outing of the year, and Biggio stepped back in time for two innings, returning to his old catching position.

"It was awesome," said Backe, a native of nearby Galveston. "There are no other words to describe the feeling I had pitching to my childhood idol. It was a very special night for me. I wish it didn't end, to be honest with you."

Biggio stuck to his plan to play two innings behind the plate, returning to the position he played for the first four years of his Astros tenure. He wore a specially made catcher's mask that included several unique designs. One side bore the old rainbow logo, while the other had the brick-red insignia the Astros currently use. The back of the helmet said "1988-2007, 3,000 club."

Biggio appeared to be a bit nervous in the game's early stages, but his two innings behind the plate went off without a hitch. He looked as comfortable there as he does at his more familiar second-base position, and Brad Ausmus held his own as well while manning second base for the two innings Biggio was occupying his spot behind the plate.

"I was nervous, yeah," Biggio said. "You warm your pitcher up, and you walk in from the bullpen; that walk's a long walk. Then you go back out and start warming up, and your legs aren't really used to that. It was fun. I had fun with the umpire and their hitters a little bit. We didn't show anybody up or disrespect the game. It was fun being involved in the process of calling a game."

Backe admitted he shook off Biggio's signs a couple of times, but overall, he was pleased with how well the two worked together.

"I'm very, very surprised with how well he did," Backe said. "Really, I just think it just solidifies his career. He's capable of doing it 15 years later and doing it well."

Prior to Saturday's game, Biggio had not crouched behind the plate since October of 1991, the year before he began the transition to second base.

Biggio's then-25-year-old legs are now 41, but wear and tear didn't appear to be an issue during this time behind the plate. After one inning, he said to manager Cecil Cooper, "Let's do it again."

"He went out for the second [inning], and after that, I think he was kind of gassed," Cooper said. "I'm sure it was tough on his legs. But what about him, huh? He's 41, gets a couple hits, is running hard around the field -- pretty special right there. I'm just tickled I can say I managed a Hall of Famer."

"I love the guy," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "He's still pretty flawless as a player. I know he's retiring, but he surely could play again next year, from what I've seen."

Biggio logged his 667th career double in the first inning and scored on Lance Berkman's 34th homer of the year. Backe capped his stellar six innings on the mound with his second career homer, launching a solo shot off Jeff Bennett in the fifth to give the Astros a two-run lead.

So which was more exciting, catching Biggio or hitting his second career home run?

"I knew that question was coming," Backe said with a laugh. "Since I've [homered] before, I guess pitching to Biggio was probably the best. I'm very proud of myself for hitting the home run, obviously, and being able to do that, but to be able to pitch to Bidge and for him to be able to catch me, it was unbelievable. I'm going to cherish this moment for the rest of my life."

Backe was strong on the mound, holding the Braves to one run. He didn't issue a walk and struck out four in what was arguably the best start of the five he's made this year.

"He did a good job," Cooper said. "I thought his command was good, for the most part. After the sixth, I thought that was a nice way to end it. We're looking forward to Brandon in 2008."

But first, the Astros must say goodbye to '07, and also say goodbye to Biggio, who has one more game before calling it a career for good.

Backe became choked up talking about his emotions heading into Sunday.

"It'll be tough to hold the tears back, to be honest with you," Backe said. "It'll be tough, really tough. I'm sure it will be tough for [Biggio]. You don't want it to come to an end, but all good things must come to an end."

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.