SERIES: NL division series; Astros lead 2-1.
The Houston Astros are turning to a man just a few months younger than their franchise to help them win a playoff series for the first time.
Pitching on three days’ rest for the first time this season, 42-year-old Roger Clemens will try to send the Atlanta Braves to their third straight first-round exit when the teams meet in Game 4 at Minute Maid Park.
The Astros beat the Braves 8-5 Saturday in Game 3 and need just one more win in the best-of-five series to advance in the playoffs for the first time since the Houston Colt .45s joined the majors in 1962. The victory was Houston’s first postseason win at home against the Braves, who still hold a 10-3 advantage over the Astros in the playoffs, including 5-1 in Houston.
“We still have a long way to go,” said Jeff Bagwell, who was a member of the 1997, 1999 and 2001 Astros teams that lost to the Braves in the first round.
Carlos Beltran hit a two-run homer after going 0-for-5 in Game 2. The Astros, who have won 19 straight at home, have lost all seven of their previous playoff series.
“I was praying to be in this kind of situation, where every game means something,” said Beltran, who was traded from last-place Kansas City to Houston at midseason. “Being around so many good players in the clubhouse has helped me to become a better player.”
Clemens, born on Aug. 4, 1962, signed with his hometown team after a brief offseason retirement. He will be pitching on short rest for just the fourth time in 10 years.
“Maybe if I was 24, I’d worry about it. But I’m the elder statesman, so use me,” Clemens said Saturday. “I’m here, I need to be out there and working. I’m not worried about my arm, I’m not worried about my body.”
Clemens, the only pitcher ever to win six Cy Young Awards and a strong candidate to take home his seventh this year, allowed just two earned runs over seven innings in the Astros’ 9-3 win in Game 1 on Wednesday, his fourth straight postseason victory overall.
However, he did show the effects of a stomach virus that kept him from making his final start of the regular season, walking six—his most since 1998.
Clemens’ return to the mound for Game 4 will let 20-game winner Roy Oswalt come back on short rest for Game 5 on Monday, if needed.
“The final straw that weighed it toward Roger is the fact that he’s been a fantastic pitcher,” manager Phil Garner said of Clemens, who said he felt good after throwing Friday. “I think you have to go with one of the best pitchers in the game today, and in the last decade. You have to let him have the ball.”
The Braves will counter with Russ Ortiz, who hasn’t pitched since Sept. 29.
“It’s like (Greg) Maddux, when I asked him that question once. He had over 10 days (off). He said, ‘Bobby, I’m not going to forget how to pitch,”’ Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said of Ortiz’s long layoff.
Ortiz has followed a seven-game winning streak with just two victories in his last 10 outings, but Cox said the right-hander looked strong in his side session Friday.
“Taking that out to the game and being consistent is a trick for every pitcher,” said Ortiz, who won his final start of the regular season, 6-3 over the New York Mets. “But feeling good in the bullpen is obviously a big key.”
The Braves have made 13 straight playoff appearances, but have won just one World Series title during that span. They’ll need a stronger performance from their offense if they hope to buck that trend.
Chipper Jones is 0-for-11 so far in this series and J.D. Drew is just 2-for-12 with no RBIs. Atlanta has outhit Houston 29-28, but has just eight extra-base hits and four homers to the Astros’ 13 and seven.
The Braves are 5-for-28 with runners in scoring position, while six of Houston’s runs Saturday came on extra-base hits.
“They’re very good hitters,” Garner said. “I think in some respects we have pitched them well, in some respects we’ve been a little bit fortunate, too.
“By the same token, when (leadoff batter Rafael) Furcal has been getting on base a lot, and he has, it’s very important to pitch well to those guys otherwise you’re in a vulnerable situation. I think our guys have done a real good job of containing the middle part of the order.”
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 Beltran (.267, 38, 104, 42 SBs for Kansas City and Houston), 1B Bagwell (.266, 27, 89), RF Lance 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 Brad Ausmus (.248, 5, 31).
BRAVES PROBABLE STARTING PITCHER: Ortiz (15-9, 4.13 ERA in regular season). Ortiz is 3-1 with a 3.18 ERA in five division series starts, and 3-1 with a 5.05 ERA in eight postseason starts overall.
ASTROS PROBABLE STARTING PITCHER: Clemens (1-0, 2.57 ERA). Clemens is 3-3 with a 4.25 ERA in nine career division series starts, and 9-6 with a 3.43 ERA in 27 postseason outings. The Rocket, who went 18-4 during the regular season, is 2-2 with a 5.00 ERA in four career appearances against Atlanta. Clemens won the Game 4 clincher in the 1999 World Series against the Braves as a member of the New York Yankees.
SEASON SERIES: 3-3.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Braves - RHP John Thomson threw only four pitches before leaving his start Saturday. He re-aggravated a muscle pull in his side that also forced him out of his final outing of the regular season. Thomson, who won a career-high 14 games this season, said he won’t be able to pitch again this season. … RHP Ortiz has won 77 games since the 2000 All-Star break, more than any other NL pitcher. … CF Andruw Jones went 3-for-4 with a homer and three RBIs on Saturday and is 6-for-12 with two homers in this series. Astros - The Astros’ seven homers in this series tied an NLDS record, equaling the Braves’ mark in 1995 against Colorado. … RHP Brad Lidge earned the save Saturday after blowing an opportunity in Game 2, when he pitched a season-high 2 2-3 innings. The Astros lost Game 2 4-2 in 11 innings. … RHP Clemens went 12-3 with a 2.71 ERA in 20 starts at Minute Maid Park this season.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Braves - 47-34 on the road. Astros - 48-33 at home.