HOUSTON -- Phil Garner savored the taste of champagne, the smell of his cigar and the wild celebration going on in the Houston Astros' clubhouse.
Garner had known nothing but bitter endings after spending 10 mostly terrible seasons as a manager in Milwaukee and Detroit. He looked to be headed toward another awful year after taking over the slumping Astros at the All-Star break.
But Garner and the Astros capped an incredible late-season turnaround by winning the NL wild card, clinching yesterday by beating the Colorado Rockies, 5-3, for their 18th consecutive home victory. Houston will face the NL East-champion Braves in a best-of-five series beginning Wednesday in Atlanta.
"This is almost just a big release," said a smiling Garner, drenched in the bubbly. "People thought we were dead in the water and we worked all the way back and changed that. This is just a great ending to what became an improbable year for us."
Brandon Backe (5-3) filled in admirably for an ailing Roger Clemens, pitching five strong innings and driving in two runs.
Houston won its final seven games to complete an amazing push for the playoffs under Garner, who replaced Jimy Williams.
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.
"Gar has just come in here and brought a relaxed atmosphere," Houston's Lance Berkman said. "He knew that we had a better team than we were showing on the field." The Astros were a season-worst 56-60 Aug. 14, and 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, San Diego, and Florida.