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Astros in position to clinch NLCS berth

Astros in position to clinch NLCS berth

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HOUSTON -- For Houston, it's win or go back to Atlanta.

For Atlanta, it's win or go home.

For both the Astros and Braves, Game 4 of the National League Division Series on Sunday at Minute Maid Park has high stakes, as the Braves are down, two games to one, and facing elimination in the best-of-five series, while the Astros want to avoid having to go back to Turner Field for a Game 5.

The Braves will throw right-hander Tim Hudson, the losing pitcher in Game 1, on three days' rest. Houston will send right-hander Brandon Backe, who beat Atlanta here last year in Game 3 of the NLDS.

"I think being on the big stage last year is going to help him," Astros manager Phil Garner said of Backe. "But he was pitching well for us last year when he got there. He pitched a huge game here when we had the third game here, Game 5, against St. Louis [in the NLCS], he did a brilliant job in that game.

"When he challenges the strike zone, he gets the job done. He'll do well. There's no time to be tentative, and I don't think he is. I think last year's experience will help him, he'll be able to draw on that."

Hudson has pitched on short rest before. The last time he tried it, he pitched eight scoreless innings against the New York Mets in a 4-0 win on May 24.

The Braves will be looking for as many quality innings as they can get out of Hudson. Atlanta manager Bobby Cox used five relievers in Game 1 and did so again in the 7-3 loss in Game 3. Everyone in the Braves bullpen will be on call.

"Tim's got some great stuff," Houston second baseman Craig Biggio said. "We had some good at-bats against him up there in their park. It's not easy putting something together off that guy."

The Astros aren't counting on their success against Hudson in the series opener -- five earned runs in 5 2/3 innings -- meaning much on Sunday.

"A guy like Tim, he might be a lot better on short rest because he relies a lot on movement and location," Astros slugger Lance Berkman said. "I think, you know, just from reading quotes and hearing what he had to say about it, I guess he was a little bit overamped for that start.

"Certainly when you're pitching, maybe a little bit tired, you know, he could be great tomorrow. So we're not taking anything for granted. We don't think, 'Oh, we got this guy with short rest, we beat him once.' It doesn't work that way. We've got to go out there and play the game."

Backe has performed well in the postseason here, going 1-0 with a 2.89 ERA in three playoff starts last year. He has also been one of the more successful pitchers in Minute Maid Park history, going 10-3 with a 3.12 ERA (not counting the postseason) in 28 regular-season games in the six-year-old facility.

"Well, I would love to be able to clinch it, let's put it that way," Backe said. "It would be great, to be here in Houston, clinch it and go to the next series. It would be awesome. My goal is going to be to stop them from scoring and to come away with a win. Just have a good outing and keep the game close if we haven't scored any runs."

The Braves have won 14 consecutive division titles but must win tomorrow or face first-round elimination for the fourth consecutive season.

"We still feel good," Cox said. "We've got Huddie going tomorrow, and that's a good thing."

First pitch is scheduled for 12:09 p.m. CT.

Jim Molony is a writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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