Houston forces Game 5 tonight
HOUSTON -- Nothing could discourage the Atlanta Braves -- not Roger Clemens, not a three-run deficit, not the frenzied crowd at Minute Maid Park.
The Braves pounced on Houston's bullpen as soon as the Rocket was gone, rallying for a 6-5 victory Sunday that tied the best-of-five NL series at two games apiece.
Adam LaRoche hit a tying, three-run homer in the sixth inning, and J.D. Drew singled home the go-ahead run in the ninth, handing the Astros their latest agonizing loss in October and forcing the series back to Atlanta. It will conclude tonight at Turner Field.
"The odds were stacked against us on the road, in a dome and in a hostile environment," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. "But we never felt like we were ever out of the game."
After two easy wins by Houston and two late-inning comebacks by Atlanta, only one game is left to determine who will advance.
The winner moves on to the NLCS beginning Wednesday at St. Louis. The Cardinals, a major league-best 105-57 during the regular season, beat the Los Angeles Dodgers 6-2 Sunday night to win their first-round series in four games.
Jaret Wright, the Game 1 loser, starts for the Braves against Roy Oswalt, the NL's only 20-game winner. Oswalt didn't get a decision in Game 2 and will pitch on three days' rest.
"It's never easy for this team. So here we go," Clemens said.
Working on short rest himself, Clemens left after five innings with a 5-2 lead, but the Braves rallied to snap Houston's 19-game home winning streak. It was another tough postseason loss for the Astros, still looking to win a playoff series for the first time in their 43-season history.
Houston tried to mount its own comeback in the bottom of the ninth, when Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman singled off John Smoltz with one out to put runners at the corners. Smoltz then got his record 14th postseason win when Jeff Kent grounded into a game-ending double play.
"We get to go back home and the plane ride's a lot easier," Smoltz said. "We worked very hard to get home field advantage and we need to take care of it."
On the verge of its third consecutive first-round loss, Atlanta made its move right after Chad Qualls replaced Clemens. Chipper Jones singled, Andruw Jones doubled with one out and LaRoche homered into the Astros' bullpen in right.
"It was a little momentum swing, I think, for the guys that were down, thinking this might be our last game," said the 24-year-old rookie, who hit his first postseason homer. "That turned the emotions around and kind of gave guys a boost, I think."
The winning rally began when Russ Springer, who relieved Brad Lidge to start the ninth, hit Rafael Furcal with a pitch with two outs and Furcal stole second.
Drew, hitless in three previous at-bats Sunday and 2-for-15 in the series to that point, singled to right-center, with Furcal scoring easily.
"It feels pretty dad-gum good," Drew said. "Hopefully it gets me going."
Throwing on three days' rest for the first time since April 11, 2002, Clemens clearly wasn't his usual self.
He gave up three straight singles to begin the second, with Andruw Jones driving in Chipper Jones. LaRoche followed by grounding into a double play that scored Johnny Estrada to give Atlanta a 2-0 lead.
But it was Clemens who sparked Houston's five-run rally in the bottom half of the inning with his first postseason RBI, a sacrifice fly that scored Kent.
Craig Biggio followed with a three-run homer that sailed over the left-field fence. Carlos Beltran doubled on the next at-bat and Jeff Bagwell singled him in to give the Astros a 5-2 lead.
It wasn't enough. Houston fell apart when Clemens left, and the sellout crowd of 43,335 got eerily quiet.
"I don't know what else to tell you except I went up there and gave it everything I had," Clemens said.
Astros manager Phil Garner vigorously defended his decision to remove Clemens, who retired his final five batters.
"He was at the end of his road," Garner said. "As a matter of fact, he was on pure fumes. He got us through it. We had some momentum, we had the lead. We let it slip away."
Notes: Houston dropped to 1-5 in Game 4s. ... The Astros lost their first game at home since Aug. 22 against the Chicago Cubs. ... Chipper Jones had two hits after going 0-for-11 in the first three games of the series. ... Houston set a first-round record with eight homers in the series. ... Biggio hit his first postseason homer.