SERIES: NL Division Series; Astros lead 1-0.
The Houston Astros refuse to live in the past, especially with their immediate future looking so bright.
Roy Oswalt, the National League’s only 20-game winner, will try to give Houston a commanding lead in its best-of-five division series against the Atlanta Braves when the teams play Game 2 at Turner Field.
Houston, which has never won a postseason series in its 42-year history, was by far the hottest team in baseball down the stretch. The Astros reeled off a franchise-record 18 consecutive home wins and seven in a row overall to close the regular season, completing an amazing comeback to take the NL wild card.
But before they took the field for Game 1 of the NLDS against the Braves, the Astros were reminded again and again of their previous postseason failures. Houston had lost each of its previous seven playoff series, including three to Atlanta in 1997, 1999 and 2001.
Rogers Clemens and Houston’s red-hot offense made sure the past didn’t figure in Wednesday’s opener as they breezed to a 9-3 victory over the Braves.
“I don’t think we’ll look back,” Clemens said after grinding his way through seven innings. “There’s such a different cast of characters on this ballclub.”
“I don’t think the history of not having done anything is going to apply in our case now; I think we’re beyond that,” Astros manager Phil Garner said.
Oswalt, who is likely to contend with Clemens for the NL Cy Young Award, won seven of his last eight decisions during Houston’s drive to the postseason. The right-hander allowed one run and five hits over seven innings in Saturday’s 9-3 victory over Colorado, putting Houston ahead of San Francisco for good in the wild-card race.
Oswalt insists that his first career postseason outing won’t feel any different than the crucial starts he made throughout September.
“We’ve been trying to do it every game,” said Oswalt. “It’s no different from the regular season. We had to get here first. Since we got here, you only got five games to prove you’re the better team. So every start counts, and you can’t really be out there, I guess, making too many mistakes, I guess.”
After going 2-8 during the season’s first three months, Hampton helped the Braves clinch their 13th consecutive division title by going 11-1 after July 4. Hampton yielded one earned run or fewer in each of his final four regular season outings, and will be making his 10th career postseason start.
The 2000 NL championship series MVP for the Mets, Hampton went 0-1 with a 4.26 ERA in two starts for the Braves during last year’s five-game NLDS loss to the Chicago Cubs.
Hampton has been pitching with torn cartilage in his left knee, and admits that he will need surgery in the offseason. But he also insists the injury won’t hamper him during his start Thursday.
“I’ve been able to tolerate it and I’ve been able to move pretty well,” said Hampton.
Houston got some bad injury news Wednesday as Beltran was listed as questionable for Game 2 after being hit by a pitch in the opener.
Beltran, who went 3-for-3 with a homer and a stolen base, got caught in the right ribs by an inside fastball from Atlanta reliever Juan Cruz in the seventh inning. He hobbled to first and managed to stay in the game, but didn’t go back in the field for the bottom half. Afterward, he wasn’t sure about playing Thursday.
“We’ll have to see how it feels,” Beltran said. “I don’t want to put myself in a position where I can’t perform.”
X-rays were negative, but Beltran was in obvious pain.
“It got him real good, solid in the ribs,” Garner said. “He was having trouble breathing when he got over there (to first base).”
The Braves got some good news Wednesday, as a judge allowed shortstop Rafael Furcal to play in the playoffs despite a probation violation on a drunken-driving charge. Furcal went 1-for-3 wiht a run scored and a walk in Game 1.
Game 3 will be in Houston on Saturday.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Astros - NL wild card. Braves - NL East champions.
PROJECTED LINEUPS: Astros - LF Craig Biggio (.281, 24 HRs, 63 RBIs, 47 2Bs, 100 runs), CF Beltran (.267, 38, 104, 42 SBs for Kansas City and Houston) or Orlando Palmeiro (.241, 3, 12), 1B Jeff Bagwell (.266, 27, 89), RF Berkman, (.316, 30, 106, 127 BBs, 104 runs), 2B Jeff Kent (.289, 27, 107), 3B Morgan Ensberg (.275, 10, 66), SS Jose Vizcaino (.274, 3, 33), C Ausmus (.248, 5, 31). Braves - SS Furcal (.279, 14, 59, 29 SBs), 2B Marcus Giles (.311, 8, 48), RF J.D. Drew (.305, 31, 93), 3B Chipper Jones (.248, 30, 96), C Johnny Estrada (.314, 9, 76), CF Andruw Jones (.261, 29, 91), 1B Julio Franco (.309, 6, 57) or Adam LaRoche (.278, 13, 45), LF Eli Marrero (.320, 10, 40) or Charles Thomas (.288, 7, 31).
ASTROS PROBABLE STARTING PITCHER: Oswalt (20-10, 3.49 ERA). Oswalt is 0-1 with a 4.98 ERA in four career starts against the Braves. On the road this year, he is 9-6 with a 3.90 ERA in 18 starts.
BRAVES PROBABLE STARTING PITCHER: Hampton (13-9, 4.28 ERA). Hampton is 2-0 with a 5.52 ERA in five career starts against his former team. At Turner Field this year, he is 7-5 with a 3.65 ERA in 15 starts.
REGULAR SEASON SERIES: 3-3.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Astros - Before their nine-run outburst Wednesday, the Astros twice scored seven runs in a postseason game, both against Philadelphia in the 1980 NLCS. They lost that series in five games. … LF Biggio and 1B Bagwell have not fared well at the plate against their former teammate, LHP Hampton. Biggio is 2-for-11 (.182) and Bagwell is 5-for-14 (.267) against Hampton. … The Astros last won a playoff opener in the 1999 NLDS, taking Game 1 in Atlanta. They went on to lose the next three and had dropped six consecutive postseason games overall before Wednesday’s victory. Braves - SS Furcal was ordered to serve a total of seven weeks in jail and treatment after the season ends. … OF Andruw Jones hit his eight career postseason homer in Game 1. … 3B Chipper Jones went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in Game 1, and was clearly bothered by a sore right hand. He still hopes to play Thursday.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Astros - 44-37 on the road. Braves - 49-32 at home.