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Oswalt, Biggio lead Astros to brink of NLCS

HOUSTON (AP) -- Roy Oswalt stumbled and fell on his rear right in
the middle of the field. Then he got up, reached back and put the
Houston Astros in control of their first-round playoff series.

Not bad for a No. 3 starter.

Oswalt pitched into the eighth inning, striking out seven of the
next 12 batters after his awkward spill, and the Astros beat the
Atlanta Braves 7-3 Saturday night to take a 2-1 lead in their
best-of-five series.

Houston can advance to its second consecutive NL championship
series with a victory at home on Sunday. Brandon Backe will pitch
for the Astros against Game 1 loser Tim Hudson, coming back on
three days' rest.

Mike Lamb hit a tiebreaking homer in the third for the Astros,
who after seven first-round exits from the playoffs are trying to
eliminate the Braves in the division series for the second year in
a row.

Craig Biggio, the 39-year-old second baseman who has spent his
entire career in Houston and last week agreed to a contract for
2006, hit three doubles and scored twice. Morgan Ensberg, who had
five RBI during a 10-5 win in the series opener, added a pair of
RBI doubles to the delight of a boisterous home crowd.

"Last year we got to really see what our crowds were all about
in this building," Biggio said. "They're your 10th guy."

Oswalt had already wasted a two-run lead when he fell on the
mound in the middle of his windup for an 0-2 pitch to Marcus Giles
in the third.

"My back foot slipped off the back of the rubber, and once my
feet gave way, I started to throw the pitch anyway, and my mind
said, change real quick, don't lob one up there and let the guy hit
it out," Oswalt said. "I went ahead and took that one on the
chin."

After getting up and shaking his head, Oswalt threw a 96 mph
fastball that Giles swung at and missed.

That was Oswalt's first strikeout, and it got him back on track
after a strange sequence in the second inning when the Braves tied
the game.

"He's a tough cookie," Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said.

Losing pitcher Jorge Sosa, a reliever-turned-starter, gave up
three runs and seven hits over six innings in his first postseason
appearance. After joining the Braves' rotation in mid-June, he went
7-0 in 12 road starts.

By the time Oswalt left to a loud standing ovation with one out
in the eighth and Giles on first, Houston led 7-2. Andruw Jones
then hit an RBI double off reliever Dan Wheeler, but that was all
the Braves got. Brad Lidge closed it out in the ninth.

The teams had about 14 hours to rest for Game 4, which is Sunday
at 12:09 p.m. CDT.

Atlanta has won 14 straight division titles, but hasn't made it
past the first round of the playoffs since 2001. The Braves will
turn to Hudson in the hopes of sending the series back to Atlanta
for a deciding game Monday night.

Oswalt might have been third in the Astros' playoff rotation,
but the right-hander was the opening-day starter ahead of Andy
Pettitte and Roger Clemens in their hometown.

And it was also Oswalt on the mound last Sunday in the
regular-season finale the Astros had to win to clinch the NL wild
card outright. He beat the Chicago Cubs, making him the first
pitcher since 2001-02 with consecutive 20-win seasons.

After needing only 12 pitches to get through the first three
Atlanta hitters, and with a 2-0 lead, Oswalt endured a strange
inning.

With Jones on after a leadoff single and Adam LaRoche with a 3-1
count, plate umpire Jeff Nelson signaled a balk on Oswalt's quick
pitch. But, based on a seldom-used rule, the pitch was still live
and ended up being ball four -- with no balk against Oswalt.

Jeff Francoeur's grounder to third started a double play that
left him laid out on the ground. Ensberg's throw was off target,
and Lamb was in a defensive position when he caught the ball up the
first-base line. Lamb tagged out Francoeur, then shoved the runner
aside with his left elbow.

Brian McCann blooped a 97 mph fastball into short left, right
after swinging and missing badly at a slow curve, to drive in a run
and make it 2-1.

Oswalt still thought he was out of the inning with the lead, so
certain that he had thrown a third strike to Sosa that he was
already hopping off the mound when Nelson called the pitch a ball.
Sosa grounded the next pitch through the left side of the infield
for a tying single.

McCann helped beat the Astros with a homer on Thursday night,
the rookie catcher's three-run shot off Clemens in his first
postseason at-bat putting the Braves ahead to stay in a 7-1
victory.

Biggio led off the first with a double and scored on Ensberg's
first double. Jason Lane, after a foul ball hit so high that it
struck the roof, had a sacrifice fly to put the Astros ahead 2-0.

Houston hit seven doubles, an NL division series record.
Biggio's three matched the individual mark.

"As he goes, we go," manager Phil Garner said. "But
somebody's got to complete the job and Ensberg has been doing that
lately. If Ensberg gets a couple of doubles and nobody is on base,
we don't have anything going on."

Lamb's homer to right with two outs in the third put Houston
ahead to stay.

After Sosa was lifted for a pinch-hitter in the seventh, Biggio
led off the bottom half with another double and the Astros went on
to score four times off four Atlanta pitchers. The Houston outburst
didn't end until Brad Ausmus grounded into a disputed double play,
one that brought manager Phil Garner out to argue with first-base
umpire Gary Cederstrom.

Game notes
The roof at Minute Maid Park was closed, even though it was
71 degrees and a clear night when the game started. Garner said the
goal is to make it loud -- and it was. ... There was a crowd of
43,759, the largest in the stadium's six seasons.