Reds fall behind another game in a loss to Astros, 11-5

Joel Anderson and Joel Anderson

The crowd was on its feet, beckoning the latest slugging surprise in the Houston Astros’ vaunted offense to re-emerge from the dugout.

Already seated and oblivious to the cheers, Brandon Backe didn’t stir from his daze until his teammates nudged him back outside.

“I was just excited thinking about the home run,” said the 26-year-old pitcher, who was making only his fourth career start. “I was going to go down and sit in my little hole, but they told me to get out there.”

Backe hit his first career homer, a two-run shot, and allowed one run in seven innings to keep the Astros in the thick of the NL wild-card chase with an 11-5 win over the Cincinnati Reds yesterday — their season-high 10th straight victory.

Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman and Jeff Kent also homered for Houston, on its longest win streak in five years. The Astros have won 18 of 21 since Aug. 15, the best record in the majors during that stretch.

The Astros closed within a game of NL wild-card leaders Chicago and San Francisco. Houston, a season-high 11 games over .500 at 74-63, hasn’t been within striking range of the Cubs and Giants in more than three months.

“They are not missing anything at the plate,” Reds manager Dave Miley said. “If you make a mistake, they hit it and they hit it hard.”

Backe (3-2) virtually shut down the Reds after giving up three hits and a run-scoring single to D’Angelo Jimenez in the first. He gave up only four singles from there, finishing with a career-high eight strikeouts and a walk.

But it was Backe’s performance at the plate that was the biggest surprise.

Backe went 2-for-2 with a walk, including the two-run shot in the fourth that gave Houston a 5-1 lead.

“It was my big dream to be a hitter in the major leagues,” said Backe, who was drafted by Tampa Bay in 1998 as a second baseman. “I never thought I’d be a pitcher. My hitting skills are still there. I practice all the time behind closed doors.”

The crowd of 40,581 gave Backe a standing ovation as rounded the bases and didn’t stop the cheers until he came out from the dugout to doff his cap. It was the first homer by an Astros pitcher since Ron Villone did it against the Reds on Aug. 15, 2003.

“I asked (manager Phil) Garner, ‘Did we just win the World Series or what?”‘ Berkman said. “I didn’t know what was going on.”

Said catcher Brad Ausmus: “I just wanted to make sure he didn’t get too full of himself after that home run. I’ve played for over 11 years and I’ve never had a curtain call.”

Houston’s powerful offense did the rest.

The Astros, who’ve averaged nearly 10 runs a game during its win streak, roughed up Reds starter Aaron Harang for the second time in six days.

Harang (8-8) allowed seven runs on nine hits, including four homers, in four innings for his fifth loss in six decisions. Harang also gave up four homers in an 8-0 loss to Houston last week.

“I was listening to their TV announcers and they said somebody is going to have to throw an absolute gem of a game to stop them and get them out of their rhythm,” Harang said. “I agree. And I don’t see that happening.”

Bagwell connected in the first to extend his season-best hitting streak to 11 games, tying the game at 1-1. Berkman and Kent led off the fourth with back-to-back homers before Backe’s two-out, two-run shot.

Bagwell added an RBI double in the fifth and Mike Lamb followed with a run-scoring single. Houston added four more runs in the sixth after Bagwell was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded, Kent walked and Lamb hit a two-run single.

Cincinnati’s Adam Dunn scored in the eighth on a fielding error by Lamb. Juan Castro’s three-run homer in the ninth cut the Reds’ deficit to 11-5. It was his fourth homer of the season and it drove in Darren Bragg and Ryan Freel, both of whom walked.