Mission accomplished. PETCO Park is supposed to be a pitcher's haven, but on Wednesday, it served as a bandbox for both teams' hitters. No one benefited more than Berkman, who sent a towering three-run shot to the deepest part of the Padres' ballpark off Hoffman, sending the Astros to a 9-6 victory.
The Astros were one strike away from starting the season 0-3. The Padres were ahead, 6-5, with two outs in the ninth, and Hoffman had pinch-hitter Jose Cruz Jr. in a 1-2 count. Cruz took several close pitches, however, and finally drew a rally-sparking walk.
"I was trying to just see the ball," Cruz said. "Trust my eyes and what I'm seeing. I was able to see it and lay off and put together a good at-bat."
"That could be the biggest at-bat of the night, really," manager Cecil Cooper said.
Michael Bourn laced a single through the hole at second, and he advanced to third on Hunter Pence's base hit to right that scored Cruz. That set the stage for Berkman, who worked a 3-1 count and figured there was a 50-50 chance he'd see Hoffman's signature changeup.
Hoffman threw a fastball, and Berkman launched it to center field for his first home run of the year. The Astros' dugout erupted in euphoria, and later, the team let out a collective sigh of relief.
"It's huge," Berkman said. "Every point in the season has its moments and certainly for the early part of the season, this is a big thing for us. Whenever you can come back and fight ... they go up, we tie it, they go up again. You win a game late, off the guy that has the most saves in Major League history, that's something we can hang our hat on. It's a good confidence builder."
The Astros' offense barely made a showing in the first two games, but they had better luck against Greg Maddux, who gave up three of Houston's four home runs. The Astros recorded 11 hits, seven for extra bases.
"The bats woke up and had some big, big, big hits tonight," Cooper said. "We've got to ride the backs of people like [Carlos] Lee and Pence and Berkman and [Miguel] Tejada. We've got to ride those guys. They all came through tonight. That's what we're looking for."
Berkman's heroics weren't limited to the ninth inning. The Astros were down by a run in the eighth when he doubled off Joe Thatcher, stole third base and scored on Tejada's sacrifice fly, tying the game at 5.
"You've got to pick your spots when you're a guy such as myself," Berkman said. "One out, they've got a great bullpen, it's still going to be tough to score and [reliever Cla Meredith is] kind of slow to the plate. He holds the ball a little longer than normal. So I figured I had a decent chance to ambush him and it worked out that we could score a run without getting a hit, which turned out to be a pretty big play."
The Padres scratched out a run in the bottom of that inning against closer Jose Valverde, who had not pitched since the Astros' final exhibition game in Houston on Saturday. He yielded a leadoff hit to Michael Barrett, who moved to third on Jody Gerut's pinch-hit single to right. Brian Giles launched a fly ball deep to center, which gave Barrett plenty of time to score the tiebreaking run.
When Hoffman jogged in from the bullpen to his signature song, "Hells Bells," in the ninth, a sparse crowd of 18,714 had reason to believe the game would end in the home team's favor. The Astros did not downplay the significance of this win, even if the season is only three days old.
"It gives you [reporters] a little hope that we're not the worst team in the league," Berkman joked. "For us, anytime, especially early in the season, if you can kind of get a mentality where you're never out of the game even when it seems like there's long odds, you come back and win, it certainly breeds confidence for the next time we're in that situation.
"I've been on teams where we felt like we couldn't be beat no matter what the score was and I've been on teams like last year, where something bad happened, that was it. It's good for us to use this to get some confidence. We didn't want to start 0-3. This is a tough road trip so now we have a chance to salvage a split."