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Astros pitcher supplies the pop

Associated Press
Published September 7, 2004

HOUSTON - The crowd was on its feet, beckoning the latest slugging surprise in the Astros offense to re-emerge from the dugout.

Already seated and oblivious to the cheers, Brandon Backe didn't stir from his daze until his teammates nudged him back outside.

"I was just excited thinking about the home run," said the former Devil Rays pitcher, who at 26 was making his fourth career start. "I was going to go down and sit in my little hole, but they told me to get out there."

Backe hit his first career homer, a two-run shot, and allowed one run in seven innings to keep Houston in the thick of the wild-card chase with an 11-5 win over the Cincinnati Reds on Monday, its season-high 10th straight.

Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman and Jeff Kent also homered for Houston, on its longest win streak in five years. The Astros have won 18 of 21 since Aug. 15, best in the majors in that stretch.

The Astros remained 11/2 games behind NL wild-card leader Chicago and are a game back of San Francisco. Houston, a season-high 11 games over .500, hasn't been within striking range of the Cubs and Giants in more than three months.

"They are not missing anything at the plate," Reds manager Dave Miley said. "If you make a mistake, they hit it and they hit it hard."

Backe virtually shut down the Reds after giving up three hits and a run-scoring single to D'Angelo Jimenez in the first. He gave up four singles from there, finishing with a career-high eight strikeouts and a walk.

But it was Backe's performance at the plate that was the biggest surprise.

Backe went 2-for-2 with a walk and hit a two-run shot in the fourth that gave Houston a 5-1 lead.

"It was my big dream to be a hitter in the major leagues," said Backe, drafted by Tampa Bay in 1998 as a second baseman. "I never thought I'd be a pitcher. My hitting skills are still there. I practice all the time behind closed doors."

The crowd of 40,581 gave Backe a standing ovation as he rounded the bases and didn't stop until he came out of the dugout to doff his cap. It was the first homer by an Astros pitcher since Ron Villone did it against the Reds on Aug. 15, 2003.

"I asked (manager Phil) Garner, "Did we just win the World Series or what?' " Berkman said. "I didn't know what was going on."

Said catcher Brad Ausmus: "I just wanted to make sure he didn't get too full of himself after that home run. I've played for over 11 years and I've never had a curtain call."

The Astros, who have averaged nearly 10 runs during its win streak, roughed up Reds starter Aaron Harang for the second time in six days. Harang allowed seven runs on nine hits, including four homers, in four innings for his fifth loss in six decisions.

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