Houston vs. Atlanta


By Phil Zuccarell

This could be billed as the resurrection series.  Atlanta was left for dead to start the season.  Their time was considered over.  Their vaunted starting pitching was now gone with Maddux back with the Cubs, Glavine in NY and Smoltz in the pen.  They were hoping to compete with a bunch of left-for-dead pitchers trying to resurrect their careers.  Gone too was the offense.  Replacing Javy Lopez and Gary Sheffield, who combined for 82 home runs and 241 RBIs, would surely be insurmountable.  All Atlanta did was take retreads like Jarret Wright, John Thomson, and Mike Hampton and combine them with Russ Ortiz to form one of the Majorís most reliable rotations.  Atlanta also found a way to keep J.D. Drew healthy allowing him to reach is boundless potential.  All these factors allowed the Braves to rise again and win their 13th consecutive division title.

Houston was a fashionable pick to win the division before the season started.  Acquiring Andy Pettite and convincing the Rocket, Roger Clemens, to refuel for another season, the Astros had arguably the best starting pitching staff in the Majors when Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller were thrown in.  But quickly into the season both Pettite and Miller succumbed to injuries and the once formidable combo of Biggio and Bagwell was producing little.  Houston made a valiant effort in trading for Carlos Beltran but still they faded, seemingly into oblivion and death.  Speculation of who the Astros would trade off began to surface.  Beltran? Kent? Clemens?  But the team held together and, with the aid of a 12 game winning streak and a cataclysmic collapse by the Cubbies, resurrected their season and won the NL Wild Card. 

So, with both teams coming back from the dead to meet in the first round, how do these two teams match up?  On offense, the Astros have the Killer Bís and a K.  Biggio, Bagwell, Berkman, Beltran, and Kent.  That core has lots of experience and talent.  Only Beltran lacks playoff experience.  The Braves have experience and talent as well.  The Jones boys along with the surprising Drew can mash and Marcus Giles, Johnny Estrada, and Rafael Furcal are dangerous hitters as well.  I think the lineups are fairly equal and neither team seems to have a clear advantage. 

On defense, the Astros upgraded with Beltran but still are a little below average.  Kent, Bagwell, and Biggio are solid but have slowed with age.  Ensberg is adequate at third.  With Ausmus, Beltran, and Everett they do have good defenders at some key positions.  The Braves are a slightly above average defensive team.  Jones in center and Drew in right are both good defenders and the platoon of Eli Marrero and Charles Thomas is decent in left.  Estrada and Furcal provide good defense at catcher and shortstop while rookie Adam LaRoche and the ageless Julio Franco are adequate at first.  Atlanta has a small advantage here.

Starting pitching, probably the most important postseason component, is a strength for both teams.  Houston has a terrific 1-2 punch in Clemens and Oswalt and the recent performances Brandon Backe give Houston 3 good starters.  After that the Astros are all question marks.  Do they go with a 3-man rotation?  They might have to.  Atlanta used its consistency at this position to win the division.  Hampton, Ortiz, Wright, and Hampton are all capable but only Wright has pitched like an ace this season.  Overall they will be good but will they be good enough?  I would give the advantage to Houston as Clemens, Oswalt and anyone is probably better than any set of pitchers that Atlanta could put together.

The bullpen is probably the second most important aspect of a team in the post season.  Both Houston and Atlanta boast great closers.  The up-and-coming Brad Lidge and the ageless Smoltz anchor their respective pens but thatís where it ends.  Houston traded Octavio Dotel to get Beltran.  That left Dan Miceli as the only other proven performer.  Atlanta isnít much better.  Though their ERAs look nice, most of the Atlanta pen was far from dominant.  Outside of Smoltz, only Juan Cruz and Antonio Alfonseca have flashed the stuff that can dominate in the post season.  Here I would give the advantage to the Braves, solely on the track record of Smoltz but both teams must hope for 7+ innings from their starters to win.

Evaluating these teams was tough.  Both showed resolve in winning when they were supposed to fade.  Both have veteran talent and hungry youth.  Where this series is going to be won is with pitching, particularly the pen and who has to use it the least.  Thatís why I say that Houston is going to win in 5.  The value of an Oswalt and Clemens cannot be underestimated, just ask the Diamondbacks who won on the backs of Schilling and Johnson.  Both of these guys have the quality stuff to dominate until Lidge can get in the game.  The Braves are more likely to need their pen more quickly than Astros and that will be the reason their postseason woes will continue.