HOUSTON - The Houston Astros charged into the playoffs with their 18th consecutive home victory, capping an incredible turnaround by beating Colorado 5-3 Sunday to win the NL wild card.
Brandon Backe filled in admirably for an ailing Roger Clemens, pitching five strong innings and driving in two runs.
Houston won the final seven games of the regular season and nine of the last 10 to complete an amazing late-season push for the playoffs under manager Phil Garner, who replaced Jimy Williams at the All-Star break.
The Astros will go to Atlanta for Game 1 of the division series on Wednesday - the Braves have eliminated Houston three times in the last seven postseasons.
After the final pitch, Houston's players ran out of the dugout to meet near the mound for hugs and high-fives while red and white confetti rained down on the fans. Garner was a bit slower onto the field, walking on the grass with a big smile and a tip of his cap toward the stands.
Eventually, Garner and his team donned silver-and-white caps with the Astros' shooting star logo and the words "Wild Card" in capital letters.
The Astros were a season-worst 56-60 on Aug. 14 - four days later they lost star pitcher Andy Pettitte to season-ending elbow surgery. But they rallied and won an exciting stretch duel with San Francisco, Chicago and San Diego.
Houston earned its seventh playoff berth, first as a wild card - and the Astros are in great shape going into the playoffs. Clemens can start Game 1 on full rest as long as he's recovered from a stomach virus, and 20-game winner Roy Oswalt would be ready to follow.
It's the second straight year an NL team replaced its manager in the middle of the season and went on to win the wild card. Jack McKeon led the Marlins to a surprising World Series title in 2003.
A championship for the Astros would be nearly as stunning, considering most people counted them out in August. Houston has never won a postseason series in 42 years of existence.
The Astros' win eliminated San Francisco in the race for baseball's final playoff spot this year. When the final score was posted by itself in large letters on the scoreboard at Dodger Stadium, where the Giants were playing, the crowd cheered.
Giants star Barry Bonds went down the line in the dugout, slapping palms with teammates, then grabbed his bats and was pulled from the game in the fourth inning.
Houston tied a season high Sunday with four stolen bases - even the plodding Jeff Bagwell got one. The Astros used seven pitchers for the second time in three days, and Brad Lidge got his 29th save to put the finishing touches on a day that began with concerns about Clemens.
The Rocket was all set to start on three days' rest, but he was scratched in the morning after coming down with a stomach virus overnight. Backe, whose six career wins are 322 fewer than Clemens, wasn't told he was going to start until about two hours before the game.
Backe was barely challenged by Jamey Wright and the Rockies.
Wright (2-3) went only four innings, allowing five runs and five hits. He dropped to 0-10 in 15 appearances against the Astros, including 14 starts.
Backe, an outfielder in Tampa Bay's minor league system for his first three years, had a two-run single in the second to give the Astros a 2-0 lead.
The Astros added three runs in the third on Lance Berkman's RBI double, and run-scoring singles by Jeff Kent and Jose Vizcaino.
From there, the game almost had the feeling of a coronation: a video montage of the Astros' run to the playoffs played on the Jumbotron between innings and the sellout crowd gave the team a standing ovation after every inning.
The crowd cheered wildly again when Backe left in the sixth after allowing singles to Royce Clayton and Todd Helton. Backe doffed his cap to the fans as he made his way to the dugout.
Colorado scored twice, but Chad Qualls got out of the inning.
Notes: Since Aug. 14, Houston is a major league-best 36-10.... The Astros' 18-game home winning streak is the longest in the majors in 10 years. Cleveland won 18 straight at Jacobs Field from May 13 to June 19, 1994.... With sellout crowd No. 24, the Astros set a franchise record for attendance (3,087,872).... The Rockies finished with nine losses in their last 10 games en route to the second-worst record (68-94) in franchise history. Only the expansion team in 1993 was worse at 67-95.
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