SERIES: NL division series; tied 1-1.
The Atlanta Braves found a way to win Game 2. Finding a way to win in Houston promises to be much tougher.
The Braves will try to become the first visiting team to win at Minute Maid Park in seven weeks when they meet the Astros for Game 3 of their first-round playoff series.
Without that victory, Atlanta would have been forced to win twice in a place where winning once will be hard enough.
Houston closed the season by winning a franchise-record 18 straight home games. The Astros have not lost at home since falling 11-6 to the Chicago Cubs on Aug. 22.
That loss dropped the Astros to 61-62, the last time they were below .500 this season. Sparked by their home win streak, they went 31-8 overall after that defeat to claim the NL wild card.
“I think you always feel better in your own ballpark,” Astros manager Phil Garner said. “I think this ballpark is probably a little better suited for us in one sense of the word. But playing on your home turf is certainly an advantage, I think, for our team.”
Atlanta manager Bobby Cox insists his club won’t be intimidated by Houston’s recent success at home.
“Well, we’re aware of that winning streak they have,” Cox said. “They play well here. For me, if you’re asking that question, it’s still another game of baseball. So if we pitch good and play good defense, get a few hits, we’ll be fine.”
Houston seemed poised to keep rolling right through this series until the latter stages of Game 2. After an easy win in the opener, the Astros were leading 2-0 Thursday behind Roy Oswalt, the NL’s only 20-game winner this season.
But the Braves got a run off Oswalt in the seventh and tied it against Lidge in the eighth. Atlanta closer John Smoltz pitched three innings to keep the game tied before the Braves won it on Furcal’s homer off Dan Miceli in the 11th.
Had the Astros been able to hold the lead, they would have been one victory away from winning a postseason series for the first time in the 42-year history of the franchise. They suffered first-round losses to the Braves in 1997, ’99 and 2001—getting swept twice.
Brandon Backe will try to help Houston regain the lead in the series. The right-hander was the winning pitcher on the final day of the regular season, when he stepped in for an ailing Roger Clemens to beat Colorado, the victory that allowed the Astros to clinch a playoff spot.
The Astros hope the return home helps gets their bats going again. After scoring nine runs in Game 1, Houston didn’t have a hit over the final 5 1-3 innings and finished with only four Thursday, looking like the team that never hit above .220 in any of its previous three postseason series against Atlanta.
Jeff Kent is just 1-for-9 in the series, but has had plenty of success against Game 3 starter John Thomson. The second baseman is batting .515 (17-for-33) with three homers, six doubles and 12 RBIs against Thomson.
Thomson won at Houston on Aug. 4, helping the Braves take two of three in that series.
Thomson was scheduled to be the Game 2 starter, but was pushed back to give him extra time to rest a pulled muscle in his side that he suffered on the final day of the regular season. He threw in the bullpen Thursday and the Braves believe he is ready to pitch.
“It may recur during the course of a game, and we’ll adjust at that time,” Cox said. “But right now he’s good to go.”
The Braves are seeking more offense from some of their top run producers. Chipper Jones, still hurting after being hit on the wrist by a pitch in the season finale, is hitless in eight at-bats, while J.D. Drew is 1-for-8 and has struck out four times. Those two combined for 189 RBIs during the season.
Game 4, which is Sunday afternoon in Houston, will feature a matchup of Game 1 winner Clemens and Atlanta right-hander Russ Ortiz, who was originally left out of the Braves’ starting rotation for this series.
Cox opted for Ortiz instead of Game 1 starter Jaret Wright, who has been struck by hard-hit balls back to the mound in his last two outings.
“Well, Wright’s been banged up twice - once on the ankle and once on the shin,” Cox said. “He’s never pitched on three-days’ rest in his entire life. You have to understand, he’s had some arm surgery through the years and probably doesn’t bounce back as well as some of the guys. Just right now I think it’s a smart thing to do. Russ is a 15-game winner. He won 21 last year.”
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Braves - NL East champions. Astros - NL wild card.
PROJECTED LINEUPS: Braves - SS Furcal (.279, 14, 59, 29 SBs), 2B Marcus Giles (.311, 8, 48), RF Drew (.305, 31, 93), 3B Chipper Jones (.248, 30, 96), C Johnny Estrada (.314, 9, 76), CF Andruw Jones (.261, 29, 91), 1B Adam LaRoche (.278, 13, 45), LF Charles Thomas (.288, 7, 31). Astros - LF Craig Biggio (.281, 24 HRs, 63 RBIs, 47 2Bs, 100 runs), CF Carlos Beltran (.267, 38, 104, 42 SBs for Kansas City and Houston), 1B Jeff Bagwell (.266, 27, 89), RF Lance Berkman, (.316, 30, 106, 127 BBs, 104 runs), 2B Kent (.289, 27, 107), 3B Morgan Ensberg (.275, 10, 66), SS Jose Vizcaino (.274, 3, 33), C Brad Ausmus (.248, 5, 31).
BRAVES PROBABLE STARTING PITCHER: Thomson (14-8, 3.72 ERA). Thomson’s injury, suffered in his last start of the season, ruined an otherwise superb stretch run. He went 5-0 with a 1.70 ERA in eight starts before being forced to leave Sunday’s start against the Cubs after three innings. He was 1-1 with a 4.72 ERA in two starts against Houston this season and is 3-4 with a 6.95 ERA in seven career starts against the Astros.
ASTROS PROBABLE STARTING PITCHER: Backe (5-3, 4.30 ERA). Backe made nine starts after moving into the rotation in August. He won his last two outings to go 4-2 as a starter, and the Astros were 7-2 in his starts. The right-hander was 3-0 with a 1.50 ERA in four starts at Minute Maid Park.
SEASON SERIES: 3-3.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Braves - Atlanta was one of only three teams to win a series at Houston after July. Montreal and the Cubs also won two of three in August. … 1B LaRoche homered in his only at-bat against RHP Backe this season. He is 3-for-7 (.429) in this series. … The Braves have left 22 men on base through two games. Astros - Backe hit .313 with a homer and six RBIs in just 16 at-bats, including a two-run single in the regular-season finale. … The Astros hit .277 at home, 20 points higher than their road average. … Houston has hit six homers in the two games, its most ever in a playoff series.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Braves - 47-34 on the road. Astros - 48-33 at home.