SERIES: NL Division Series; tied 2-2.
The Braves will try to get out of the first round for the first time in three years and continue their postseason dominance of the Astros when the teams meet in the decisive game of their NL division series.
The Braves rallied for a 6-5 win on Sunday to force Game 5. Atlanta struggled against Roger Clemens, who was pitching on three days’ rest, trailing 5-2 when the Astros’ right-hander left the game after five innings.
J.D. Drew, mired in a 2-for-15 slump, singled in the go-ahead run in the ninth inning, and closer John Smoltz pitched two scoreless innings to earn his major league-record 14th postseason win. Smoltz, who earned the first 12 wins as a starter, passed Andy Pettitte on the all-time list.
The Astros scored all five of their runs in the second inning off Braves starter Russ Ortiz, who had not pitched since Sept. 29.
“We overcame a fluke five-run rally,” said Atlanta’s Chipper Jones, who went 2-for-4 after opening the series 0-for-11. “You’re just thinking to yourself right there that there is no way we’re going to end our season on that note.”
The win snapped Houston’s 19-game home winning streak, one day after the Astros beat the Braves at home in the postseason for the first time in team history. Houston had not lost at Minute Maid Park since Aug. 22 against the Chicago Cubs.
“Streaks are streaks, they’ve got to come to an end some time,” Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said.
The Braves have made 13 straight postseason appearances, but have won just one World Series title. Atlanta beat Houston in the first round in 1997, 1999 and 2001, and is 11-3 all-time against the Astros in the playoffs. Houston has lost all seven of its playoff series in its 43-year history.
“There’s a difference between being aware of the history and letting it affect the present,” Astros outfielder Lance Berkman said. “This series has been awesome.”
The Astros thought they finally had the Braves figured out on Sunday. The Jumbotron at Minute Maid Park showed an animated graphic of killer bees swarming over the Braves’ tomahawk logo for the second straight night after Houston’s five-run inning.
“Three runs is not enough against that team,” Houston’s Jeff Kent said. “And then they bring in a guy like Smoltz, who is dominating. It’s tough to score runs against him. You have to get ahead against them early so you don’t have to face a guy like that.”
The Astros will send Roy Oswalt, the NL’s only 20-game winner, to the mound on three days’ rest on Monday. The 27-year-old right-hander allowed just one run and eight hits over 6 1-3 innings in Game 2 on Thursday, but was denied the win after the Braves rallied for an 11-inning, 4-2 win.
“I like getting the ball on the last day for sure,” Oswalt said. “I’ll have the same approach as any other game.”
Oswalt lost 7-4 to Los Angeles on July 11 in his only other career start on short rest.
“He can handle it,” Clemens said. “He’s been our horse all year. We look for good things.”
Atlanta will counter with Jaret Wright, who allowed six runs and eight hits, including three homers, over 4 1-3 innings in Wednesday’s 9-3 loss in Game 1.
“I definitely wanted another shot,” Wright said. “In that game I threw in Atlanta, I made a couple of mistakes, and they hit ‘em out. I’m looking to improve on that, and I’m going to be ready.”
The Braves have lost only twice in their history to the Astros at home in the playoffs, but that doesn’t seem to bother Houston catcher Brad Ausmus.
“This isn’t a new situation,” said Ausmus, whose team was four games below .500 on Aug. 14 before winning the NL wild card on the final day of the regular season. “We’ve been on the cusp of being eliminated numerous times. We’ve seen the end of the plank. We’ve seen the shark-infested waters.”
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 Carlos Beltran (.267, 38, 104, 42 SBs for Kansas City and Houston), 1B Jeff Bagwell (.266, 27, 89), RF 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 Ausmus (.248, 5, 31). Braves - SS Rafael 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 LaRoche (.278, 13, 45), LF Charles Thomas (.288, 7, 31).
ASTROS PROBABLE STARTING PITCHER: Oswalt (0-0, 1.42 ERA). Oswalt, whose start in Game 2 was his first career appearance in the postseason, went 20-10 with a 3.49 ERA during the regular season. He is 0-1 with a 5.65 ERA in three career regular season starts against Atlanta.
BRAVES PROBABLE STARTING PITCHER: Wright (0-1, 12.46). Wright is 3-4 with a 7.36 ERA in his career in the postseason, including a 2-3 mark and 9.00 ERA in five division series appearances. He was in line for a Game 7 win in the 1997 World Series while pitching for Cleveland as a 21-year-old, but the Indians lost the game in extra innings to the Florida Marlins. Wright went 9-0 in 15 starts from late May until the middle of August and finished the regular season 15-8 with a 3.28 ERA. He is 0-1 with a 2.00 ERA in two career regular season starts against the Astros. His Game 1 start was his first against Houston in the postseason.
SEASON SERIES: 3-3.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Astros - With eight home runs in this series, Houston has set a record for the first round of the postseason. … LF Biggio hit his first playoff homer Sunday. … CF Beltran went 1-for-4 with a run Sunday and is 6-for-17 with six runs, two homers and four RBIs in the series. Braves - Cox switched 2B Giles and RF Drew in the lineup Sunday, batting Drew second and Giles third. Drew went 1-for-4 and Giles was 0-for-5. … Cox also played OF Eli Marrero in place of LF Thomas, who had a swollen knee after being hit by a pitch Saturday. However, Thomas was available to pinch-hit or pinch-run and Cox said he had decided to insert Marrero in the lineup before Thomas sustained the injury. … Atlanta’s starters have allowed 13 runs in 14 innings in the series and are 0-1 with an 8.36 ERA.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Astros - 48-33 at home. Braves - 47-34 on the road.