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Houston vs. Atlanta

October 04, 2005|Paul Sullivan | Chicago Tribune



*--* P Player Avg HR RBI 2B Craig Biggio 264 26 69 CF Willy Taveras 291 3 29 3B Morgan Ensberg 283 36 101 LF Lance Berkman 293 24 82 1B Mike Lamb 236 12 53 RF Jason Lane 267 26 78 SS Adam Everett 248 11 54 C Brad Ausmus 258 3 47 P Andy Pettitte 081 0 3


* Strengths: After a 15-30 start that sparked rumors of trading Roger Clemens, the Astros bounced off the mat to earn the wild card on the final day of the season. With Andy Pettitte going 11-2 since the All-Star break, Clemens taking his seventh earned-run average title with a career-best 1.87 and Roy Oswalt again winning 20 games, the Astros have enough starting pitching to make up for a below-average lineup. Brad Lidge has established himself as an elite closer with 42 saves after setting a National League record for a reliever with 157 strikeouts in 2004. Plain-spoken Manager Phil Garner is regarded as one of the game's top motivators.

* Weaknesses: Houston ranks near the bottom in NL batting despite playing in one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks. The Astros have missed injured Jeff Bagwell's leadership and bat most of the season. They have never made it to a World Series despite having strong teams for most of the last nine years. They lost to St. Louis in Game 7 of the 2004 NL championship series.

* Key reserves: OF Chris Burke (.248, 5, 26), OF Orlando Palmeiro (.284, 3, 20).

* Team batting: .256, 14th in NL.

* Team ERA: 3.51, second in NL.

* Key to the series: This is exactly what hometown heroes Clemens and Pettitte plotted when they left the New York Yankees after the 2003 season. An arm injury prevented Pettitte from contributing in the postseason last year, but he is as dominating as ever and ready to make amends. Houston's starters led the league with a 3.46 ERA, so if the lineup can scratch across a few early runs, their experience in the postseason could be the determining factor.


*--* P Player Avg HR RBI SS Rafael Furcal 284 12 58 2B Marcus Giles 291 15 63 3B Chipper Jones 296 21 72 CF Andruw Jones 263 51 128 1B Adam LaRoche 259 20 78 RF Jeff Francoeur 300 14 45 LF Ryan Langerhans 267 8 42 C Johnny Estrada 261 4 39 P Tim Hudson 138 0 6



* Strengths: Perennial Gold Glove center fielder Andruw Jones became a true candidate for most valuable player, leading the Braves with a stellar all-around season. Despite an influx of rookies, Atlanta led the league in fielding and finished sixth in pitching and batting. Chipper Jones is a steadying influence in the clubhouse, and the addition of strong-armed reliever Kyle Farnsworth has greatly helped the bullpen. Farnsworth had 15 saves in 15 opportunities with Detroit and Atlanta since the All-Star break and posted a 1.98 earned-run average with the Braves. He is a testament to the coaching of pitching guru Leo Mazzone. Bobby Cox is a favorite for National League manager of the year.

* Weaknesses: Middle relief remains a sore spot, and the bullpen has a 4.74 ERA, fifth worst in the NL. That means starters John Smoltz and Tim Hudson may have to work longer. After an excellent start, rookie Jeff Francoeur is batting .235 since Sept. 1. Hudson compiled a 4.39 ERA in six September starts and catcher Johnny Estrada has hit .222 since the All-Star break.

* Key reserves: IF Julio Franco (.275, 9, 42), IF Wilson Betemit (.305, 4, 20), OF Kelly Johnson (.241, 9, 40).

* Team batting: .265, sixth in NL.

* Team ERA: 3.98, sixth in NL.

* Key to the series: The Braves' kids must step up to avoid another first-round upset, and the middle relievers have to pitch over their heads. After years of failing to live up to his potential with the Chicago Cubs, Farnsworth has the spotlight on the game's biggest stage, finally getting a chance to prove he can close games. He is inconsistent but still has a 100-mph fastball.



Best-of-five series; all times Pacific

* WEDNESDAY: Houston (Pettitte 17-9) at Atlanta (Hudson 14-9), 1 p.m., ESPN

* THURSDAY: Houston (Clemens 13-8) at Atlanta (Smoltz 14-7), 5:15 p.m., Ch. 11

* SATURDAY: Atlanta (Sosa 13-3) at Houston (Oswalt 20-12), time and TV TBA

* SUNDAY: Atlanta at Houston, if necessary

* MONDAY: Houston at Atlanta, if necessary

-- Paul Sullivan, Chicago Tribune

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