The San Diego Padres are going back to the NL championship series after a 14-year absence, thanks in large part to new hero Jim Leyritz.
With the crowd of 64,898 hanging on every pitch, Leyritz hit his third homer in as many games and 27-year-old Sterling Hitchcock was dominating in his first playoff start, using a devastating split-fingered fastball to strike out 11 in six innings.
Johnson lost his fifth consecutive decision in the postseason, tying a major-league record. He left for a pinch-hitter in the seventh, and reliever Jay Powell gave up pinch-hitter John Vander Wal's two-run triple and Wally Joyner's two-run homer in the eighth.
"Everybody counted us out," Hitchcock said. "They said we couldn't beat Johnson twice in a five-game series. Well, we beat him twice in a four-game series. These guys never let up."
Trevor Hoffman closed out the ninth for the Padres, who move on to face the Atlanta Braves in the NL championship series starting Wednesday night at Turner Field. Atlanta won five of nine from the Padres this year.
This is the first time the Padres have been this far since 1984, when they beat the Chicago Cubs in the NLCS only to lose the World Series 4-1 to Detroit. Tony Gwynn is the only player left from tat team, although Bruce Bochy is the manager and Tim Flannery the third base coach.
| Greg Vaughn celebrates after scoring on an error for the Padres' second run, which gave San Diego the lead for good. (AP) |
The Astros go home frustrated for a second straight year, having been swept by Atlanta in a 1997 Division Series. Houston have been in five postseason series, and lost all of them.
Johnson was brilliant after being traded from Seattle to Houston on July 31, going 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA. But the Padres beat him twice this series.
Leyritz homered for the third straight game and for the sixth time in 34 postseason at-bats.
He sent the crowd into a frenzy with his 422-foot homer to left-center on a 3-1 pitch from Johnson leading off the second. Leyritz had been just 4-for-37 (.108) with one home run lifetime off Johnson.
"This time of day, it's hard to see the ball," said Leyritz obtained from the Boston Red Sox June 21. "I just swung in the right place and, with his velocity, was able to hit it out.
"We struggled in September once we clinched, but we were able to step it up a notch."
The Padres won Saturday night's game 2-1 thanks to Leyritz's solo homer to left with one out in the seventh. On Thursday, his pinch-hit, two-run shot with two out in the ninth off Billy Wagner sailed just inside the foul pole in right, tying the game at 4. The Astros came back and won it 5-4 in the bottom of the ninth.
Leyritz is best known for his dramatic homer for the New York Yankees in Game 4 of the 1996 World Series against Atlanta. His three-run, eighth-inning shot against Mark Wohlers tied the game at 6. The Yankees went on to win in 10 innings and defeated the Braves in six games.
Trailing 2-1, the Astros loaded the bases without a hit off Joey Hamilton in the seventh. Dan Miceli came on and retired the side on four pitches, striking out Brad Ausmus and getting Carl Everett -- pinch-hitting for Johnson -- to pop up to third.
Miceli came on with the bases loaded and two out Saturday night and struck out Bill Spiers on three pitches.
Jeff Bagwell walked leading off the seventh and eventually reached third, but was caught in a rundown after Joyner fielded Spiers' grounder to first.
The Padres scratched out an unearned run in the sixth to go ahead 2-1. Greg Vaughn hit a high fly with two outs and left fielder Moises Alou had to run in.
Alou tried to make a sliding catch and missed, giving Vaughn a double. Ken Caminiti followed with a chopper to third baseman Sean Berry and stumbled coming out of the box, but Berry made a bad throw thabounced past Bagwell at first base, allowing Vaughn to score.
Hithcock came in overmatched in playoff experience by Johnson, who had thrown 46 1/3 playoff innings. Hitchcock had made just two relief appearances for the Yankees in the 1995 Division Series against Seattle, totaling 1 2/3 innings.
But the lefty had the Astros swinging at his splitter, which often dove into the dirt. He allowed two hits and one run and walked none.
He was perfect through three innings before a splitter bounced and hit Craig Biggio in the leg. Richard Hidalgo singled and Derek Bell hit into a double play, moving Biggio to third. Bagwell singled to center to score Biggio.
Biggio hit a one-out double in the sixth, but Hidalgo popped up and Hitchcock froze Bell with a curveball to end the inning.
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