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Astros now turn to Oswalt

Hopes rest with 20-game winner

HOUSTON -- Now it's Roy Oswalt's turn to try to pitch the Houston Astros to their first playoff series victory.

He can only hope for more help from his bullpen than Roger Clemens got yesterday.

"I like getting the ball on the last day, for sure," Oswalt said. "I'll have the same approach as any other game."

Houston wasted a great opportunity to close out the Braves at home, blowing a three-run lead in a 6-5 loss that sent the first-round series back to Atlanta for a decisive Game 5 today.

Oswalt, the National League's only 20-game winner this season, will start on three days' rest against Game 1 loser Jaret Wright. Oswalt pitched on short rest only one time in his career, losing at Los Angeles July 11.

"He can handle it," Clemens said. "He's been our horse all year. We look for good things."

Oswalt gave up a run and eight hits in 6 2/3 innings in Game 2, but the Braves rallied from a two-run deficit and won, 4-2, in 11 innings.

"We always feel confident when Roy's on the mound or Rocket's on the mound," third baseman Morgan Ensberg said. "I like our chances."

After the Astros won Game 3, the setting appeared perfect for them yesterday in Game 4.

Clemens, the hometown hero who came out of his brief retirement for just such an opportunity, was pitching before a packed house. Houston had won 19 straight home games and needed just one more to advance in the postseason for the first time in its 43-year history.

But Clemens wore out and the bullpen failed.

After manager Phil Garner let Clemens bat in the fourth, the Rocket had his easiest inning on the mound in the fifth.

Clemens struck out Rafael Furcal and J.D. Drew before getting Marcus Giles on a fly ball. But with his 42-year-old righthander exhausted, Garner went to the bullpen in the sixth.

"That last inning, he was on pure fumes," Garner said. "He had us in a good situation . . . Roger did his job, he got us through the fifth inning."

Working on only three days' rest, Clemens left with a 5-2 lead after throwing 87 pitches, 52 for strikes.

Clemens allowed six hits with five strikeouts and two walks. The longtime AL pitcher even contributed at the plate with a sacrifice fly in Houston's five-run second.

But the bullpen couldn't keep the Astros from going back to Atlanta, where Clemens won Game 1 last Wednesday.

Chad Qualls quickly gave up the lead in the sixth. After allowing hits to Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones, Adam LaRoche hit a three-run homer to tie the game at 5.

Russ Springer, the sixth Astros pitcher, struck out his first two batters in the ninth before hitting Furcal with a pitch. Furcal stole second and scored the go-ahead run on Drew's single to right-center.

"I feel for those guys. Sometimes you don't make the best pitch at the right time," Clemens said. "This time of year, everything is magnified . . . There's going to be some guys that had a few problems today that are going to be right back in the fire tomorrow."

Closer Brad Lidge retired the only two batters he faced, but he was lifted for a pinch hitter in the eighth after consecutive two-out hits by Brad Ausmus and Jason Lane. Orlando Palmeiro grounded out, and Lidge was out of the game.

Unless Oswalt comes through today, Houston could be eliminated by the Braves in the first round for the fourth time in eight years.

"There's a difference between being aware of the history and letting it affect the present," Lance Berkman said. "This series has been awesome."

And must-win games are nothing new for these Astros. After falling to 56-60 Aug. 14, they capped a stirring stretch run by clinching the wild card on the final day of the regular season.

"This is how we've played all year," Ensberg said. "I think we're in pretty good shape."

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