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Walk-off win can't extend Astros' season

Walk-off win can't extend season

HOUSTON -- The Astros went through the typical motions that normally follow a walk-off homer, meeting their teammate at home plate for a congratulatory round of helmet pats and high fives while watching the visiting team sulk back to the dugout.

But the euphoria of Darin Erstad's solo homer off Julian Tavarez that lifted the Astros to a 5-4 win over the Braves on Friday night lasted only about 10 minutes. After the win, most of the players gathered in the clubhouse to watch the Brewers finish beating the Cubs, thus eliminating the Astros from National League Wild Card contention.

The Astros are now 3 1/2 games back with three to play -- actually, two, since Monday's makeup game with the Cubs is no longer necessary. After 159 games, it's over.

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"It's obviously bittersweet to go from winning to, three minutes later, watching Milwaukee close us out," Erstad said. "You have to hand it to them. They had to win. This team kept fighting. It just didn't happen."

"I think it was unrealistic to expect both Milwaukee and New York to get swept," Lance Berkman said. "Although, stranger things have happened. [Milwaukee] won a game tonight, and that's all she wrote."

Manager Cecil Cooper headed to the interview room immediately after the Brewers recorded their last out and began his postgame commentary by lauding the players for a good year.

"It was still a gallant effort from my troops, and that's what I'm most proud of -- that they continue to play, and play hard, right to the end," Cooper said. "It's over for postseason, but we still have something to play for, finishing in third place [in the NL Central division]. And that in itself is an accomplishment. [Saturday], we'll come and play hard again."

The Astros won their 85th game under the open roof at Minute Maid Park in walk-off fashion, after Jose Valverde blew his first save opportunity in more than two months.

The closer opened the ninth by issuing a leadoff walk to Omar Infante, which Jeff Francoeur followed with a base hit. Brandon Jones grounded to Berkman, who threw to second for the forceout. Miguel Tejada threw back to Valverde, but the ball bounced off Valverde's glove and trickled toward the Astros' dugout.

As Valverde rose to his feet from a splits position and scampered after the ball, Infante trotted home, tying the game. Jones, who had run out of the basepath after crossing first, was tagged out by Valverde on his way back to the bag.

The blown save ended Valverde's scoreless-inning streak at 17 2/3 innings, spanning 19 appearances. It was the first run he had allowed since Aug. 9, marking the longest active streak in the Majors.

Another late-inning reliever, LaTroy Hawkins, also ended a personal scoreless streak of 19 innings without allowing a run, spanning 22 appearances. He allowed two hits and a sacrifice fly in the eighth, giving up a run for the first time since joining the Astros in early August.

"Those guys have been terrific," Cooper said. "Tonight, I thought we were going to do it again, where they throw up a bunch of zeroes, and they almost did."

The Astros received two very promising performances from players who have had their share of struggles lately, both of whom helped build an early lead.

First, Brian Moehler -- he pitched 5 2/3 convincing innings, holding the Braves to two runs on two walks with two strikeouts.

Moehler, who had allowed five runs in each of his previous two outings and only lasted one inning against the Pirates last week, let a two-run single in the fourth be his only blemish.

"I feel like I located better tonight than I had in my last couple starts," Moehler said. "I got ahead, for the most part, of hitters, except that one inning there."

From the offensive side, Michael Bourn logged three hits and showed off his blazing speed when he scored from second on Berkman's fly ball to center in the third. The ball was more than deep enough to move Bourn from second to third, but Bourn didn't stop there. He rounded the bases at full speed, scoring easily.

"I thought that was just a terrific play," Cooper said. "The one thing I liked about it is that, when the ball was hit and caught, sometimes guys will jog to third base. He ran like he was going to keep running. He never broke stride. Good call by him and by the third-base coach [Ed Romero]."

Bourn said he was going regardless of what hand signals Romero offered.

"He was waving me from the jump, but I was going anyway," Bourn said. "It didn't matter what was going on."

The Astros will play two proverbial "meaningless" games Saturday and Sunday, but third place in the division is on the line. Considering their rival Cardinals are a 1 1/2 games behind them, in fourth place, it's unlikely the Astros will sleepwalk through the next two days.

"There are small victories, I guess," Berkman said, when asked if their strong finish after such a dismal start was any kind of consolation. "We certainly fought hard and never quit the entire season, and I think we can be proud of that. We just came up a little short."

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

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