2001 MLB Postseason
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Jeff Pearlman's Breakdown
Astros   Braves
Although Houston's bats have sagged of late, the Astros are -- in the words of one National League scout -- "the only NL team that can compete with the big guns in the other league." Outfielders Moises Alou (.333) and Lance Berkman (.331) flirted with a batting title, and first baseman Jeff Bagwell has quietly had another outstanding run. The pickup of Vinny Castilla (.270, 23 homers, 82 RBIs), a Tampa Bay discard, has been huge.   OFFENSE

The Edge:
  

Where have you gone, Andres Galarraga? Reggie Sanders? Ryan Klesko? Biff Pocoroba? That Atlanta was able to reach the playoffs with a pea-shoot offense is either a) a tribute to Bobby Cox's keen managerial stylings; or b) a neon sign screaming that the NL East bites. With Rafael Furcal long gone from atop the lineup and 902-year-old Julio Franco playing first, the Braves are Chipper, Brian and seven guys named Jim.  

Bagwell and Craig Biggio have retained their quality, and catcher Brad Ausmus is routinely overlooked. That said, Houston's corner outfielders -- Berkman in left, Alou in right -- are iffy souls. Sometimes Berkman makes spectacular plays. Other times, he's more than a little wobbly out there.   DEFENSE

The Edge:
  

Although he'll again be passed over for the Gold Glove, shortstop Rey Sanchez is Rey Ordonez without the twists, Ozzie Smith without the curves. Cox insists Sanchez owns the softest hands he's ever seen -- quite a compliment, considering Cox is older than a full-grown oak. Chipper Jones is oft criticized at third, but that's partially because he's marquee. Usually, he makes the plays.  

Houston's reliance on the young duo of Roy Oswalt and Wade Miller is promising and troubling. Promising, because Nolan Ryan and J.R. Richard are soon to be forgotten. Troubling, because youth plus playoffs generally equals disaster. Shane Reynolds, however, remains a solid anchor.   STARTING PITCHING

The Edge:
  

This rotation is the reason the worst Atlanta team in a decade can't be counted out. Yeah, Greg Maddux has struggled. And, OK, maybe Tom Glavine ain't at his peak. But combined with the tested Kevin Millwood, the Braves are firm. 

Watching Mike Williams pitch is like watching a Barbra Streisand Love Fest: It hurts in so many different ways. He's slow and clumsy and problematic, yet he gets the job done. If Williams, along with Ron Villone, Nelson Cruz and Mike Jackson, can hand the game over to Octavio Dotel and Billy Wagner, the Astros will be in good shape.   BULLPEN

The Edge:
  

Rocker, oh Rocker. Where for art thou, Rocker? Hee-hee. Just kidding. As predicted by every member of humanity (save for Cleveland GM John Hart), the Steve Karsay/Steve Reed-for-John Rocker exchange has deepened a thin Atlanta pen. And with Rudy Seanez a reliable middle assistant and John Smoltz closing, the Braves are dependable.  

Although the Astros reserves hardly exorcise the ghost of Terry Puhl, it's a nice collection of professional hitters. Jose Vizcaino had positive postseason experiences with the Yankees last year, and outfielder Daryle Ward would be starting for 29 other clubs.   BENCH

The Edge:
  

Ugh. Ken Caminiti and Bernard Gilkey are done. Keith Lockhart has provided five uninterrupted years of mediocre reserve service. Not good.  

A couple of months ago, Larry Dierker's head was on the block. Now, his name could appear on the NL Manager of the Year plaque. It's not that he's the world's greatest strategist -- he's not. But Dierker leaves his vets alone, an invaluable trait. MANAGER

The Edge:
  

They've got the best manager in baseball. The Braves wouldn't spend coin to land a much-needed offensive addition, but somehow Cox pieced together a mediocre lineup and won the division anyhow.  

Moises Alou. This will be the soon-to-be free agent's last season in Houston. Alou won a World Series with the '97 Marlins (and was wrongfully denied the Series MVP Award), and he badly wants to win another. Expect a huge series from him.   'X' FACTOR

The Edge:
  

Expectations. Actually, lack of expectations. Nobody believes Atlanta will advance to the NLCS. This makes Cox smile, as it should. In the past, the Braves have been an uptight group of businessmen. Not this time.  
Pearlman's Prediction: Braves in 5
 
Sports Illustrated baseball writer Jeff Pearlman will contribute regularly to CNNSI.com throughout the playoffs.
 

   
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