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Kent's ninth-inning homer stuns Cardinals

HOUSTON (AP) -- Only when Brandon Backe and Woody Williams were
done did the hitters have any chance.

That's when Jeff Kent stepped up and put the Houston Astros only
one win away from the World Series.

Pitching suddenly took over these playoffs Monday night, when
Backe and Williams hooked up in one of the greatest October duels --
only four hits in all, the fewest ever in a postseason game. Kent
ended it, launching a three-run homer in the ninth inning to lift
the Astros over St. Louis 3-0 for a 3-2 edge in the NL Championship
Series.

Each team had only one single until the final inning.

"He was on tonight, just like I was," Backe said. "When you
feel as good as I did out there and felt in the rhythm that I was
in, you just feel like nobody can hit you."

Neither team's sluggers did anything until Carlos Beltran -- who
else? -- led off the ninth with a single. Moments later, Kent
hammered a ball off the limestone facade in left field.

Kent flipped his bat after he connected, tossed off his helmet
as he headed home and said, "One more, one more."

He was right. Because after the Astros' third straight win, one
more victory will put them in the World Series for the first time
ever.

Game 6 will be back in St. Louis on Wednesday, with Matt Morris
starting for St. Louis. Roger Clemens may pitch on three days' rest
for the Astros -- manager Phil Garner said he will announce his
choice on Tuesday's off-day.

"It was really a well-played game, well-pitched game,"
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "Brutal ending."

Too bad not a whole lot of people may have seen it. Most
baseball fans in the country got the Yankees-Boston game in the
ALCS, and surely some people in St. Louis watched the Rams-Tampa
Bay NFL matchup.

It was even until Beltran singled off Jason Isringhausen in the
ninth and stole second with one out, prompting an intentional walk
to Lance Berkman. Kent was up next.

"We've been struggling to get offense all day, both teams,"
Kent said. "Both teams know how to hit, the pitching just shut us
down all day long. To finally come up with a hit is big."

Backe, who started the season in the minors, allowed one single
in eight innings and Brad Lidge worked a perfect ninth for a
combined one-hitter.

"I just got into a rhythm, a groove," Backe said. "I had
really good command."

Williams matched him for seven innings, allowing Jeff Bagwell's
single in the first. Both starters struck out four and walked two
in a rematch of Game 1, won by Williams.

"I just know I put up seven zeros, but I got outmatched,"
Williams said.

Lidge pitched for the third straight day, adding a win to his
two saves in the series. Isringhausen relieved in the eighth, and
wound up with the loss.

"I knew it was out when it left the bat," Isringhausen said.

Beltran's record streak of homering in five straight postseason
games ended, though he gave it a ride in his first at-bat. But he
showed off all his other attributes, including two outstanding
catches.

Sluggers ruled the first four games, combining for 19 homers.
Backe put a stop to the Cardinals' fun, limiting them to Tony Womack's two-out single in the sixth.

The Astros won for the 22nd time in their last 23 home games.
Fans simply didn't want to leave Minute Maid Park at the end,
hanging around inside to celebrate.

While pitching dominated, Beltran provided the highlights until
Kent's third homer of the NLCS.

The All-Star center fielder and soon-to-be-free agent made the
play of the game with two outs and no one in the seventh, racing to
his right for a diving, backhanded catch to rob Edgar Renteria.

Beltran raised his glove, left fielder Craig Biggio lifted his
mitt and Backe punched the air. To a standing ovation, Beltran
casually trotted to the dugout and flipped the ball into the seats.

In the eighth, Beltran ran back and halfway up the quirky hill
in dead center to haul in Reggie Sanders' shot in front of the
in-play flag pole, about 420 feet from the plate.

About the only thing Beltran did not do was hit another home
run. He made a bid for it, hitting a long fly ball to left that
Sanders caught on the warning track.

Backe and Williams both looked far from overpowering, mainly
relying on breaking balls to get outs. Even so, they were virtually
unhittable.

Backe, a former schoolboy football star in Texas and an
outfielder in the Tampa Bay system, bamboozled the Cardinals from
the start. He set down the first 13 batters before walking Jim
Edmonds in the fifth, and did not allow a hit until Womack pulled a
single past diving first baseman Bagwell.

After Larry Walker walked, Backe faced his first jam when Albert
Pujols stepped to the plate. That brought pitching coach Jim Hickey
to the mound, and he'd just gotten back to the dugout when Pujols
popped up to end the inning.

The final out brought a roar from the crowd and chants of
"Back-e! Back-e!" His father, Harold, was so fired up he charged
over from his seat and gave a loud high-five to the ballpark
public-address announcer.

"It was a strong, almost miracle performance from a guy who was
born to do this," his dad said.

Not bad for a guy who won only five games in the majors this
season.

"He pitched a great game, it doesn't surprise me," Beltran
said.

Williams, meanwhile, quietly and efficiently went about his
business in front of a sizable cheering section. Born and raised in
Houston, he'd gotten more than 50 tickets for family and friends
when the NLCS returned to town.

Game notes
A pitch from Williams nicked Morgan Ensberg's helmet in the
fourth. It was merely a glancing blow, and Ensberg took his base
without any trouble.