Astros save the one that almost got away

By D. Ryan Monceaux

Sports Editor

It has been 12 years since the Astros won a playoff game, but they finally ended the streak yesterday in the Astrodome when they beat the San Diego Padres 5-4.

The win knotted the series at one apiece, sending it to San Diego's Qualcomm Park for games three and four. If neccessary, game five will be in the Astrodome Monday at 7 p.m.

The Astros led through most of the game, but nearly let the game slip away in the ninth. Billy "The (Cardiac) Kid" Wagner came in to wrap up the win, but allowed Padres pinchitter Jim Leyritz to belt a two-run homer to tie the game at four.

The home run voided a solid performance from starter Shane Reynolds, who went seven innings, giving up only four hits and two runs in the process.

The Astros got on the scoreboard in the first as second basemen Craig Biggio led off the game with a single before Bill Spiers, the Padre-killer this series, doubled to put men on second and third. Jeff Bagwell bounced out to second with one out, plating Biggio to make the score 1-0.

In the second, Houston scored two more runs, as Biggio walked before Spiers doubled for the second straight inning. Bagwell singled to center to score both Biggio and Spiers, making the score 3-0.

The Padres came alive in the sixth cutting the deficit to 4-2. Quilvio Veras singled, then scored when former Astro Steve Finley doubled off the scoreboard in left. Tony Gwynn singled-in Finley two pitches later.

Derek Bell, who played for the Padres organization in 1993 and '94, made his first real impact in the eighth with a solo home run into the leftfield bleachers. It was Bell's first hit of the series against his former club, and gave his present team a little breathing room going into the ninth 4-2.

But Wagner came on in the ninth to try for his first save in the postseason.

Ken Caminiti hit an infield single, and with two strikes, Leyritz took a fastball over the rightfield fence, clearing the foulpole by only eight feet. The blast deflated the 45,550 fans in attendance, but the players were by no means upset.

"We thought if we could just hold them, the game was still tied and, at the end, we could get the game winning run," Spiers said.

And the 'Stros did just that. Rick Gutierrez led off the bottom of the ninth with an infield single, beating out a throw from shortstop Carlos Gomez. Catcher Brad Ausmus, who came in the game to catch for Wagner, layed down a sac-bunt to move Gutierrez to second off of reliever Dan Miceli.

Trevor Hoffman came in the game to face Craig Biggio with one out, but on Hoffman's first pitch, Gutierrez stole third uncontested. Hoffman then intentionally walked Biggio to face Spiers. Spiers drove the 1-2 pitch to the opposite field, driving in the winning run for Houston.

Astros skipper Larry Dierker was thrilled with the win, the first postseason win for the Astros since the epic 1986 NLCS with the New York Mets.

"It takes an awful lot of pressure off," Dierker said. "After winning our first, we can try and win the series."

Game three starters are not set in stone, as Padres manager Bruce Bochy hinted that he may start Kevin Brown, who shut down the 'Stros on Tuesday. Dierker said he would consider pitting Randy Johnson against Brown, but would most likely stick with Mike Hampton for game three.

"We'll discuss it, but it will probably be Hampie," Dierker said. "But I am leaving my options open-ended."

Game three is Saturday at 10 p.m. central time in San Diego.

Reach Monceaux at

coogsports@hotmail.com.

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