Astros join baseball's playoff party

The final piece of Major League Baseball's playoff puzzle fell into place Sunday with the Houston Astros capturing the National League wild card berth.

The Astros made one of the biggest turnarounds in major league history, winning 36 of their final 46 games, finally winning the playoff berth with a 5-3 victory over the Colorado Rockies on Sunday.

Houston will open its best-of-five Division Series versus the NL East champion Atlanta Braves Wednesday at 4 p.m. ET at Turner Field in Atlanta.

The other National League Division Series matchup starts Tuesday at 1 p.m. ET in St. Louis with the NL Central champion Cardinals hosting the NL West champion Los Angeles Dodgers.

In the American League, the Minnesota Twins, winners of the American League Central Division, will play the AL East champion New York Yankees Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET in the Bronx in Game 1 of that series.

It will mark the second straight year the teams are meeting in the Division Series with the Yankees winning in four games in 2003.

The other AL matchup begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET with the West champion Anaheim Angels hosting the Boston Red Sox, who won the American League wild card for a second straight year.

Heading into their Aug. 15 game against the Montreal Expos, it seemed the Astros were left for dead with a 56-60 record. However, a franchise-record 12-game winning streak that stretched into early September, and a club-record 18-game victory surge at home to close the season catapulted Houston into the playoffs.

The Astros entered Sunday's game needing one victory or a San Francisco loss to make the post-season and then used strong pitching by spot starter Brandon Backe and five relievers to finish off the Rockies. Ace Roger Clemons was scheduled to start, but didn't because of stomach flu.

Houston won its final seven games of the season, and its victory on Sunday eliminated Barry Bonds and the Giants from post-season contention.

The Astros are in the playoffs for the first time since 2001 when they captured the NL Central, but were swept by the Braves in the Division Series.

In fact, the Astros have made the playoffs four times since 1997, but have lost 12 of 14 games in that span. That includes a pair of three-game sweeps to the Braves, in 1997 and 2001.

Houston and Atlanta have met three times in the playoffs since 1997 with the Braves thoroughly dominating the Astros. Atlanta also won in four games in 1999.

The Twins were aiming for home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs on Sunday and a possible matchup with the Red Sox, but needed to win twice and have the Angels lose at Oakland.

Minnesota's game against Cleveland on Saturday was suspended after 11 innings because the Metrodome had to be converted for an evening college football game. The Twins won that game 6-5 in 12 innings, but then lost in the regularly scheduled game on Sunday, 5-2.

Minnesota, which has three straight division titles, last won a playoff series in 2002 by beating Oakland before losing to Anaheim.

The Yankees enter the playoffs on the heels of their seventh straight AL East crown. New York has won the AL pennant in five of the last six years, capturing the World Series from 1998-2000, but lost the Fall Classic in six games last year to the Florida Marlins.

The Angels waited until the final weekend of the season to win their first division championship since 1986 with a win at Oakland on Saturday. Anaheim is back in the playoffs for a second time in three years, winning the World Series for the first time in franchise history in 2002.

The Red Sox, who haven't won the World Series since 1918, distanced themselves from the competition for the wild card with a 10-game winning streak that stretched into early September. Boston won seven of its final nine games.

The Dodgers, who are in the playoffs for the first time since 1996, captured the NL West crown with a dramatic 7-3 win over the Giants on Saturday on Steve Finley's grand slam in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Los Angeles has lost its last six playoff games, getting swept in 1996 by the Braves and in 1995 by the Reds. The last post-season victory for the Dodgers came in 1988 when they beat the Oakland Athletics in the World Series.

The Cardinals clinched their third division title in five years on Sept. 18, but went 8-7 the rest of the way. St. Louis' last trip to the playoffs in 2002 resulted in a Division Series win over Arizona, but a loss to the Giants in the NLCS.

The Braves have won 13 straight division championships and have made the World Series five times in that span, but have won the league championship just once, in 1995.

Atlanta's accomplishment of winning the NL East this year after losing several key players including Gary Sheffield, Javy Lopez, Greg Maddux and Vinny Castilla, has given the Braves an incredible level of confidence heading into the playoffs.

with files from Sports Network