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Astros Dream the Impossible Dream

Baseball: Houston, in first postseason since 1986, faces seemingly insurmountable task of defeating Atlanta, which is in playoffs for sixth consecutive time.


ATLANTA — The stretch. The pitch. Popped foul. Charlie Hayes camps under it. The third baseman makes the catch. The champions of baseball are the New York Yankees, just like old times.

This is where we left the Atlanta Braves, a year ago October, when all they could do was watch Joe Torre spray wine, watch George Steinbrenner cling to a wet turtleneck, watch Wade Boggs straddle a mounted policeman's horse, and toss their jerseys--with those little, tear-stained tomahawks--into a laundry hamper, not to be needed for the next six months.

"Our goal is to win the World Series. Nothing else, nothing less," says Greg Maddux, the state-of-the-art pitcher who will start today's Game 1 of a National League playoff series against the Houston Astros.

A dynasty with a dent in it, Atlanta has won only one World Series, in 1995.

Maddux's attitude explains the Braves' muted response to wrapping up another National League East title. In winning 101 games, they qualified for postseason play for the sixth consecutive year, which no baseball team has done before.

To celebrate, the Braves turned to each other at Turner Field and said, quietly, "Good job."

You know, another day at the office. Punch the clock.

"If we get to our goal, we'll party with the best of them," third baseman Chipper Jones says. "I promise."

A San Francisco player sprang into the stands to slap fans' hands. The Florida team popped corks. Houston's players stationed themselves by the turnstiles, to thank their public personally.

It was such a thrill for the Astros to get this far--never mind a World Series--that team owner Drayton McLane had to keep his word and shine his employees' shoes. A division championship in Houston is a little less rare than an Astrodome rainout. No playoff game has been held there since 1986, back when Mike Scott was the ace and Nolan Ryan didn't need Advil.

Unlike the Braves, the Astros are ecstatic.

Craig Biggio, the all-star Astro second baseman, all but gushed when he said, "This is like when you are 4 years old and you're waiting for Christmas. It's hard to sleep at night and you can't wait to get up every day."

Even with 84 victories--fewer than the third-place team in Atlanta's division--the Astros consider themselves World Series worthy, trying to go where no Houston voyager has gone before.

Self-confidence stems from having:

* Jeff Bagwell's 43 homers and 135 RBIs.

* Biggio's 47 stolen bases and league-leading 146 runs scored.

* Darryl Kile's 19-7 record and 2.57 ERA.

* A home-field advantage in the first round, with Games 3, 4 and 5 scheduled for Houston.

The catch is, how to get to Games 4 and 5.

"We need a split on the road," says Larry Dierker, the Astro manager. "We come home down, 2-zip, we aren't out of it, but we're hurting, big-time."

Particularly with that Atlanta pitching staff. Maddux is 19-4. He and southpaw Denny Neagle are 39-9 between them, and Neagle isn't even needed for the first three games. Neagle's sore right--non-throwing--shoulder has mended. He could start Game 1 of the league championship series, should the Braves sweep this one.

Nice luxury item, a 20-game winner who theoretically could take an entire playoff series off.

The Braves' pitching staff is deep as can be. Manager Bobby Cox, nevertheless, considered keeping three, even four rookies in his bullpen for the playoffs.

Cox needn't tinker much. His club knows what to do.

A decision in the outfield is necessary, partly because of rookie Andruw Jones' struggle with a batting average of .231. Cox apparently will let Javy Lopez start behind the plate for the Game 1, even though Eddie Perez was the personal catcher for Maddux most of this season. Perez's average has sunk below .220.

Mark Lemke still can't play second base--he has torn ligaments, from a hard slide Aug. 20 by Houston's Derek Bell--but could return for the league championship series. Cox can platoon Keith Lockhart and Tony Graffanino there, for now.

Houston's hope is to hit and run.

Biggio and Bagwell do both. Led by them, the Astros stole 171 bases, including a dozen on Lopez and the Braves.

Atlanta hasn't lost a season series to Houston since 1990.

On paper, this is no contest.

But in a short series, Brave pitcher John Smoltz pointed out, "You can't afford to make a mistake. In a best-of-seven, you can slip up, not get killed. [The Astros] have nothing to lose. Nobody expects them to win. They think they can win."

The consensus?

They won't.

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