The Houston Astros aren't done with the Astrodome just yet.
"I think we will look back at this season and say it was the finest that we've played," Houston manager Larry Dierker said. "Last year was exhilarating because we won 102 games and were almost unstoppable. We had a lot of easy victories. This year, everything was hard. We had to rely on pitching, fielding, defense and just enough hitting to get by."
"No team that wins 96 games in a season wins the title by coming in the back door," reliever Billy Wagner said. "It hasn't been easy all year long. But we've stuck with it and and overcame a lot and played good baseball."
Ken Caminiti put Houston ahead with a bases-loaded walk in the first inning.
"We've gone through a lot of stuff, all the injuries, the manager going down, but these guys just battled and battled," Caminiti said. "I can't say enough about them."
Daryle Ward followed Caminiti with a three-run double and the Astros coasted, finally shaking off the late-season challenge of the Cincinnati Reds, who were still tied for first before losing Saturday and falling one game back.
Pitching on three days' rest, Hampton (22-4) allowed three hits in seven innings and struck out eight, winning or the ninth time in 10 decisions. He also set a team single-season record for wins, topping Joe Niekro's 21-11 record in 1979.
"They produced some runs for me and that was the big thing," Hampton said. "I was able to relax. I wasn't tired. I was pumped up. The fans were really great. It's remarkable what we've done. This team has battled and will continue to battle."
Houston will open the playoffs at Atlanta or Arizona on Tuesday and will return to the Astrodome for Game 3 Friday. Last year, the Astros lost to San Diego 3-1 in the first round.
While the Astrodome was billed as the "Eighth Wonder of the World" when it opened in 1965, Houston decided it needed more luxury seats and a more intimate ballpark. Next year, the Astros move to Enron Field, a new $250 million field.
This one didn't have quite the drama of Houston's 1986 title clincher, a no-hitter by Mike Scott on the final day of the season. But there was plenty of pomp for the 52,033 fans to see.
Country music singer Charley Pride sang the national anthem and Astros president Tal Smith, who oversaw construction of the Astrodome, threw out a ceremonial first pitch along with Dierker, who collapsed in the dugout on une 13 and missed 27 games following brain surgery to repair malformed blood vessels.
Los Angeles originally planned to start Kevin Brown on three days' rest, then decided against it after Brown (18-9) didn't win Wednesday and lost the chance to win 20.
After striking out Craig Biggio leading off the first, Robinson Checo (2-2) walked four straight batters: Stan Javier, Jeff Bagwell, Carl Everett and Caminiti. Ward followed with a double to the right-center field wall.
"I like this ballclub," Dodgers manager Davey Johnson said of the Astros. "I like their starting pitching and their bullpen. Their lineup is tough to pitch to and they can put some runs on the board To win it three years in a row is outstanding. They have a lot of heart to come through with all the injuries. I like their chances."
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