The picture of Jeff Kent approaching home plate with a huge smile on his face is one of the most indelible images of the Astros' unforgettable playoff runs in 2004 and '05.
Kent's walk-off homer in Game 5 of the 2004 National League Championship Series was, at the time, the biggest hit in Astros history, and the normally stoic Kent let his emotions -- and his helmet -- fly as he scored the winning run.
The homer against the Cardinals on Oct. 18, 2004, at Minute Maid Park put the Astros within one win of reaching the World Series for the first time in team history, but the Cardinals rallied to win Games 6 and 7 in St. Louis and crushed the hearts of Houston fans.
Game to Remember
|Jeff Kent Facts and Figures|
|1. Full name: Jeffrey Franklin Kent.|
|2. Game to Remember: Oct. 18, 2004.|
|3. Nickname: J.K.|
|4. Jersey number: 12.|
|5. Primary Position: 2B.|
|6. Bats/Throws: Right/Right.|
|7. Born: March 7, 1968.|
|8. Birthplace: Bellflower, Calif.|
|9. Major League debut: April 12, 1992.|
|10. Years in Major Leagues: 17.|
|11. Years with Houston: 2 (2003-04).|
|12. Other teams: Blue Jays (1992), Mets ('92-96), Indians ('96), Giants ('97-2002), Dodgers ('05-08).|
|13. Key stats with Houston: .291 batting average, 49 homers, 200 RBIs.|
|14. Claim to fame: His three-run walk-off homer to end Game 5 of the 2004 NLCS was one of the biggest homers in Astros history.|
|15. Did you know? Kent is the only second baseman in history to reach 100 RBIs in six consecutive seasons (1997-2002).|
|16. What's he doing now? Kent coaches a Little League baseball team and races dirt bikes. He recently spent seven weeks in the Philippines as a contestant on the reality TV show "Survivor."|
Still, Kent's dramatic three-run blast to cap a 3-0 win holds a special place in the baseball memories of Astros fans and in the heart of Kent.
"There were pictures of me coming from third base to home plate, and I don't know if I've ever been so excited in my whole baseball career, even in the World Series [with the Giants in 2002]," Kent said. "I guess I got ahead of myself, because I thought we were going to win and go to the World Series. We didn't, and it was humbling knowing we lost against St. Louis a few days later."
Though Game 5 is known more for the Kent homer off Jason Isringhausen than anything else, it was a remarkably well-pitched game. Cardinals starter Woody Williams, who's from Houston, threw seven scoreless innings and allowed one hit, and Astros starter Brandon Backe allowed one hit over eight stellar frames.
The game was scoreless in the bottom of the ninth when Carlos Beltran led off with a single for the Astros. After Jeff Bagwell flied out to center, Beltran stole second base, which opened up first base for the Cardinals to walk Lance Berkman intentionally and set up a double play.
"For me, I was thinking, 'Drive the ball deep,'" Kent said. "I knew I was going to get something good early in the count. They had walked Berkman in front of me, and I had been used to that because they would walk Barry Bonds a lot of times in front of me, too, [with the Giants]."
Kent hit the first pitch high over the wall in left field, a no-doubt shot that appeared to disappear into the night. With a sellout crowd at Minute Maid Park going crazy, Kent threw aside his helmet as he approached the plate and was mobbed by teammates.
"I loved to compete against [Cardinals manager Tony] La Russa," Kent said. "I wanted to compete against the best I could, and that was the Cardinals and La Russa. I was prepared for that opportunity and made good on it."
The homer was Kent's final at-bat in a Houston uniform at Minute Maid Park. He wound up signing with his hometown Dodgers the following season and admitted it was difficult watching the Astros reach the World Series in 2005 by beating the Cardinals in an NLCS rematch.
"I had a great time playing [in Houston]," Kent said. "I thought I was going to end up finishing my career there, which didn't happen. I live in Austin, and we were going to build a home and have the kids settle in, and that was going to be it. I was here a couple of years and I wanted to play some more, and it just didn't happen that way.
"It happened way too fast. We were a pretty good team. The team went to the World Series the year after I left, and I was pretty bitter about that. The time I had in Houston, albeit short, was pretty great. I'm grateful for the time I had playing in the middle of the country -- the people and the fans were great. They were my kind of people. I loved every minute of it."