This was not vintage Roger Clemens. On this afternoon, however, the hottest team in baseball didn't need their old ace to be at top form. As the Twins did the night before, the Astros won their series' opening game on Wednesday with their top pitcher having an off night. Three days removed from spending an afternoon hooked up to an IV in the training room in the Astros' clubhouse, Clemens, who walked six hitters -- the most he's walked in a game in six years -- and scattered six hits, labored through his seven innings against the Braves, playing the role of Roger Dodger in Game 1 as he tiptoed through danger all afternoon. Clemens allowed baserunners in every inning but his last.
In an evening full of missed opportunities, the Braves' biggest failure came in the bottom of the third inning, when the Braves left the bases loaded after Clemens struck out Braves rookie leftfielder Charles Thomas to end the inning.
"Sometimes it takes more than talent and a 95 mph fastball to win," an exhausted Clemens said after the game. Said Braves center fielder Andruw Jones in a morgue-quiet and virtually abandonded Atlanta locker room after the game, "[Clemens is] a tough pitcher even when he?s good. He was using his split a lot, which is how he beat us."
From the Bench
Entering Game 1, Astros manager Phil Garner had managed 1,672 games, but at Turner Field on Wednesday he stood in the dugout as a manager for the first time in his career. Houston's interim manager, hired at the All-Star break, has heard all about the Astros' playoff failures of the past, as Houston teams have been eliminated by the Braves in the NL Division Series in three of the Astros' last four postseason appearances.
Long-time Astros veterans Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio entered this postseason a with a .150 batting average and no home runs in a combined 100 playoff at-bats. For one afternoon, at least, the ghosts of Houston's playoff past were gone: Bagwell had two hits, including one double, and scored two runs while Biggio added a hit and scored another run.
"You know I'm not a history buff," said manager Garner. "I don't go back and dwell on those things. I did see those games and it's probably a good thing that I've forgotten most of it, or what it was like. I lived in Houston and I was disappointed that we didn't do better in those past playoffs. But that's entirely different. That was then, this is now. This is an entirely different ballclub. If anything, I think Craig [Biggio] and Jeff [Bagwell] are going to have to answer questions like that. You have Roger Clemens, Jeff Kent, you have [Lance] Berkman and [Carlos] Beltran. You have, I would say, probably a better supporting cast."
Hours before game time, news was spreading around the Turner Field that Braves shortstop Rafael Furcal, despite a probation violation on a drunken-driving charge, would play the entire postseason. Furcal was arrested three weeks ago after he was accused of driving under the influence, which was his second DUI arrest in four years. Furcal's absence from the Braves lineup would undoubtedly deal Atlanta a huge blow, but is what Furcal did more forgivable than what Milton Bradley and Jose Guillen were suspended for by their teams? Said Bobby Cox, "[Furcal] is good to go, in a good frame of mind. "He's looking forward to getting everything taken care of when all this is said and done." ... Houston lefty Andy Pettitte, who won 13 postseason games for the Yankees was in the Houston clubhouse after the game intently watching Game 2 of the Yankees-Twins series. Pettitte is out for the rest of the season with an elbow injury. ... The Astros' lineup is peaking at the right time -- Houston's surge since mid-August has coincided with hot streaks from Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, and Lance Berkman -- but the formidable offense might get another boost if shortstop Adam Everett, who has missed nearly two months with a broken left wrist, returns to the starting lineup this postseason. The Astros made a surprising move by including Everett on the Division Series 25-man roster. As Houston's No. 2 hitter, Everett was hitting .273 with 66 runs scored in 103 games prior to the injury while playing superb defensively. Everett is an important presence in the lineup because he brings some speed to a lineup rife with big-swinging power hitters.
There were no signs of the white-hot Astros cooling down on Wednesday night. Their nine runs in Game 1 were a playoff team high. This series is over if the Braves lose Game 2 on Thursday night, as the setting shifts to Minute Maid Park for Games 3 and 4 this weekend, where the Astros have won an astonishing 18 straight games.