HOUSTON -- The Astros arrived to the clubhouse for game 162 on Oct. 3, 2004, feeling pretty good about their immediate future.Winners of 35 of its previous 45 games, Houston had climbed from sixth place in the National League Wild Card standings to first, and it needed just one more
HOUSTON -- The Astros arrived to the clubhouse for game 162 on Oct. 3, 2004, feeling pretty good about their immediate future.
Winners of 35 of its previous 45 games, Houston had climbed from sixth place in the National League Wild Card standings to first, and it needed just one more win to finish ahead of San Francisco and capture the Wild Card.
The Astros had two elements working for them: They were playing the 69-93 Rockies, and Roger Clemens, on his way to his unprecedented seventh Cy Young Award, was scheduled to start the game.
• Each team's most unlikely postseason heroes
But an hour before game time, it was clear Clemens, stymied by the stomach flu, was not going to be able to pitch. Team doctors' frantic efforts to get Clemens healthy enough to pitch, administering IVs in an area near the training room, went for naught.
With little time to prepare before the most important game of the season, Houston picked a new starting pitcher.
"I think the actual words out of my mouth were, 'You're kidding me, right?'" Brandon Backe recalled.
Backe was, at the time, a 26-year-old converted outfielder whose 2004 season consisted of several subsections, none of which, on paper, gave any indication that he was the obvious choice to start a game that would decide the Astros' postseason fate.
Backe spent the first two months of 2004 with Houston as a mediocre reliever, was redirected to the Minors for two months to build up stamina to become a starter and returned to the big leagues to make a handful of starts -- to middling reviews.
So when pitching coach Jim Hickey approached him at his locker at around noon on Oct. 3 and relayed, in a hushed tone, that he was starting the game, Backe's first thought was that he was being punked.
"It could have been a really good joke on me," Backe said. "I've had a lot of jokes played on me in the past. So here I was thinking it was just another one."
But Hickey's serious demeanor gave Backe pause. Fairly, but not fully, convinced this was not a joke, the pitcher set out to find Clemens.
"If I go see him and he's sick, it's really true," Backe said.
Backe tracked down Clemens, pale and with an IV dangling from his arm.
"He just gave me some encouraging words, honestly," Backe said. "He said, 'Just go out there and get 'em, kid. I'm not feeling good. It's all on you; you're going to do fine.'"
Backe then stuck out his arm and joked, "Well, OK, can you rub off what you were going to do today? Because that's what I'd like to do."
Backe's surprise shouldn't be mistaken for fear. Whatever Backe may have lacked in the dominance of his pitches, he made up for in sheer will. Few Astros pitchers craved high-stakes challenges quite to the level of Backe. Doubt from others motivated him. Stress fueled him.
That's one of two reasons why manager Phil Garner and his staff tabbed Backe for the start. The other was, simply, the Astros were out of starting pitchers. With Andy Pettitte out after season-ending left elbow surgery in August, Houston had two strong starters -- Clemens and Roy Oswalt -- and pieced together the other games with the likes of Backe, Pete Munro, Tim Redding and Brandon Duckworth.
The Astros liked Backe's makeup; they just weren't sure how all of his nervous energy would translate during times of peak pressure.
"He had a really good breaking ball, but he was so hyper, you didn't know if he was going to burn himself out in the first or second inning," Garner said. "But when I look back, he's going to be the guy that's not going to fold. When the playoffs start, he's probably going to be a little bit better."
That transformation began with Backe's Wild Card-clinching start against Colorado. Over five innings, Backe allowed two runs on five hits, walking two and striking out six. Houston won, 5-3.
"I'd always been a guy that likes the pressure, that likes the challenge," Backe said. "It was just another opportunity for me to accept the challenge and give it everything I had just to prove not just to myself but to everybody else that I'm capable of handling these types of things."
That game and the dearth of starting pitchers earned Backe a playoff start. And another. And another. That last one turned out to be the greatest start of Backe's career, one of the Astros' most dominant playoff starts in club history, and cemented Backe's status as a forever fan favorite.
Game 5 of the NL Championship Series with the Cardinals ended with a Jeff Kent three-run walk-off homer to put the Astros ahead in the series, 3-2. But it began with Backe and Woody Williams going toe-to-toe, matching each other with zeros through seven dizzying scoreless innings. Backe lasted eight; Brad Lidge pitched the ninth.
"It was the best feeling, the best game I've ever pitched, because of the lineup I was facing," Backe said. "It was just one of those moments where you just are in the groove, you're in the moment. There was nothing that was going to stop me from throwing a fastball or a slider exactly where I wanted it."
Backe was a big part of Houston's World Series run the following year, too. But his legacy was cemented in 2004, when expectations were minimal and the performances were unforgettable.
"Unsung heroes, they can be average players, but they have above-average aptitude," Garner said. "They don't freak out when the big pressure comes on. They actually step up a little bit. I think [Backe] got more focus. He pitched brilliantly."
Alyson Footer is a correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.