Astros raise the (retractable) roof

HOUSTON -- No one is exactly sure how Minute Maid Park turned into some kind of fearsome combination of Cameron Indoor Stadium, Lambeau Field and Rupp Arena.

But at this point, it apparently has become easier to find a cheap vat of flu vaccine than it is to beat the Houston Astros at The Field Formerly Known as Enron.

Not to suggest it has been a long time since the Astros lost a game in their cozy little retractable, citrus-themed home. But Ichiro Suzuki has gotten 65 hits since then.

And it would actually be an even bigger number than that, except that Ichiro has been exceptionally idle this week, due to 99 Mariners losses beyond his control.

Yes, the date to circle in your calendars was Aug. 22 -- an 11-6 Astros loss to the hated Cubs. That was more than seven weeks ago.

A lot has changed in the world since then -- the weather, Howard Stern's employer, Tiger Woods' marital status. But one thing hasn't changed:

The Houston Astros never, ever, ever lose if they're playing baseball in a ballpark with a train hovering over the left-field wall.

They did it again Saturday, thumping the Atlanta Braves at Minute Maid, 8-5, behind six terrific innings from their newest Texas cult hero, Brandon Backe. The big news was that that triumph left the Astros one victory away from winning a postseason series for the first time in the history of their franchise -- with Roger Clemens heading for the mound Sunday to finish that job.

But in a related development, this was also the Astros' 19th win in a row at home. We repeat: Nineteen. Considering that they'd won 19 of their previous 52 in the same building, with essentially the same players, you might say nobody saw this coming.

"I could not tell you why that is," said Jeff Bagwell, still battling temporary hearing loss after 3 hours and 19 minutes of Minute Maid bedlam. "Then again, if I could, we'd always do that. But something happened, and we've played great. We've won close ones. We've won blowouts. We've won every way you could win. I'm not sure why. But to be honest with you, I'm not sure I even want to figure out why."

Good question. It's not as if Minute Maid has a roof the same color as the ball, like Minneapolis' supremely goofy Metrodome. And it's not as if Minute Maid has the ghosts of Ruth, Gehrig and Bill Dickey hiding in the outfield, sneakily raising and lowering the fences in key spots to make sure the Yankees always win the big ones at Yankee Stadium.

It is true, on the other hand, that Minute Maid is the only ballpark in the big leagues with a gigantic hill in center field. But that isn't even the hill that has had the most to do with this streak.

No, the big hill in town is one you'll find 60 feet from home plate. That's where Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt go to work. Oh, and Brandon Backe too.

Counting Saturday, Clemens, Oswalt and Backe are now a mere 14-0 at Minute Maid in this streak. And Backe has an even more amazing distinction than his more famous partners in rotation crime:

He has never started a game in this ballpark that the Astros lost. Ever.

OK, so "ever" happens to consist of five starts there in his life. But the facts are the facts. And you can't argue with the facts.

The last time the Astros won a postseason game before this year (1999), Backe wasn't even a pitcher. He was still dreaming of becoming the next Dickie Thon back then, not the next Mike Scott. But that shortstop career path hit a pothole. So his original team, the Devil Rays, converted him to a pitcher, then traded him to the Astros last winter. And next thing we knew, there he was Saturday, practically saving the season.

He had one out-of-sync inning -- a two-run, three-hit fourth that allowed the Braves to climb out of a 2-0 hole to tie the game at 2-2. In the other five innings, though, Backe allowed just two hits (one an infield single), walked one and struck out five.

And because his teammates helped the cause by mugging seven Braves pitchers for eight runs and 11 hits, Backe now is the answer to two fun little postseason trivia questions:

  • He's one of only two pitchers born in Texas who have ever started a postseason game for the Astros. The other is some guy named Nolan Ryan.

  • He also became just the second starting pitcher in the last 40 years to win a postseason game in a season in which he made fewer than 10 starts. The other, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, is Bob Wolcott, of the 1995 Mariners.

    Not bad. After that performance, he may even qualify as a new Killer B.

    "Boy, I don't know," Backe laughed. "I think I'd better put up some better numbers (at the plate) to do that."

    Actually, his numbers at the plate aren't too shabby, either. He hit .313 this season, with a homer and six RBI in 16 at-bats. And after Saturday, life was so good in Killer B Corporate Headquarters that charter member Craig Biggio was willing to welcome him to the B hive, no more questions asked.

    "I don't know what it is around here," Biggio said. "They must get together before the draft every June and say, 'OK, if your last name starts with a B, we're taking you.' "

    In reality, of course, Biggio knows that theory doesn't accurately explain the Astros' player-acquisition philosophy. But after winning 19 home games in a row and seeing his team roar back from the dead to triple his career playoff victory total, he's doing his best not to look for explanations of just about anything anymore.

    "I'm not trying to figure this out," Biggio said. "I'm just rolling with it."

    The truth, however, is that this roll began -- sort of -- with the signings of Clemens and Andy Pettitte last winter. Those were the twin events that ignited the biggest Astros buzz since the mid-'80s, a buzz that propelled nearly 3.1 million rear ends into the seats of Minute Maid this season.

    Yet you would have expected that buzz to inspire the Astros to charge out of the blocks just like this. Instead, as has been well-documented, that's not exactly how it worked.

    "Our city really went through three different feelings about us this year," Bagwell said. "They went from the unbelievable buzz because of Andy and Roger, to total disappointment because of the way we played most of the year, to the pandemonium we're in now."

    "All these people asking why we never lose here should have been here for the first month and a half," said catcher Brad Ausmus, "when all everyone wanted to know was why we weren't winning here. I think it's like a correction in the numbers, like a stock-market correction. We've been on a bull run, no doubt about it. But I don't really see it as that amazing."

    OK, so that's where we come in. Here's some historical perspective:

  • The Astros' 18-game regular-season home winning streak was the longest by any team in a decade -- since the 1994 Indians won 18 straight.

  • It's also, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, just the 10th home streak of 18 or longer since 1903.

  • It's only the second streak that long by a team that made it to the postseason in the last 62 years -- joining a ridiculous 1988 Red Sox run of 24 in a row.

  • And since the World Series began in 1903, it's only the fifth home streak of that length by a team that reached the postseason. The others were authored by the '88 Red Sox, '42 Yankees, '35 Cubs and '31 A's.

    Alas, there's only one slice of bad news that goes along with that historical perspective: None of those five teams won the World Series.

    So clearly, for the Astros, this is a blitz of brilliance that guarantees them nothing, except the chance to play again Sunday. But since we're talking about a team that has never won a postseason series -- not to mention one that is 0-5 in franchise history when it's been one win away from advancing -- no one needs to explain why these guys probably shouldn't be paying much attention to any kind of history right now.

    "The thing about history is that it's in the past, for the most part," Ausmus deadpanned. "And it's always been in the past, unless you're time-traveling. This is a different team than all those other (Astros) teams. And the Braves are a different team. What happened in 2001 or 1997 is of no bearing to this club."

    So as long as the Astros are ignoring history, they might as well ignore this, too:

    Clemens will start Sunday on three days' rest, for the first time in 2 ½ years. He has won just once on short rest in the last 14 years. And his record in the six starts he has made in that span (regular season and postseason) is only 1-4, with a 7.55 ERA. He hasn't won a postseason start on three days' rest since Game 7 of the 1986 ALCS.

    If he doesn't win, the Astros will then bring Oswalt back on three days' rest Monday. They won't want to know that, counting Johan Santana's no-decision Saturday in the Twins-Yankees series, 39 pitchers since 1999 have started a postseason game on short rest. They've gone a combined 7-20. And their teams are 11-28.

    All the Astros know, though, is that they're 18-3 since Aug. 15 in games Clemens and Oswalt have started. So they'll take their chances.

    "Roger and Roy are two of the best pitchers in the National League," Ausmus said. "So three days' rest, four days' rest, I don't care. I'll take either one of them."

    Especially in a ballpark where they haven't lost since the Olympic flame was still burning in Athens.

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.