Posted: Saturday October 09, 1999 06:59 PM
HOUSTON (Ticker) -- The Atlanta Braves advanced to their eighth straight National League Championship Series by racing to an early lead and hanging on for a 7-5 victory over the Houston Astros.
The last major league baseball game ever in the Astrodome turned out to be a repeat of playoff failures past for Houston, which dropped the final three games of the series after stunning Greg Maddux in the opener.
Atlanta became the first NL team ever to drop the opening game and rally to win a Division Series. After escaping with a 12-inning victory in Game Three, the Braves turned to postseason ace John Smoltz this afternoon.
The Astros have yet to win any of the six postseason series in franchise history. Atlanta is 15-1 in Division Series play.
Smoltz (1-0) improved to 4-0 in Division Series action by holding the Astros scoreless through six innings. The Braves built a 7-0 lead through six innings before Houston attempted to rally.
The Astros, who have lost every one of their six postseason series, got within 7-5 and had All-Stars Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell up representing the tying run. But as they have in the past, both failed to come through and Braves closer John Rocker was able to secure the save.
"He did another sensational job," Braves manager Bobby Cox said of his first-year closer. "That wasn't easy to come in that situation and get four outs again. The game got sort of on the line, but we had our luck today. We had a lot of luck with our base hits. Everything we touched fell in for us and we a had a great pitcher on the mound."
"I didn't think we played as good as we could or should, but then this has been the way we played the last six weeks," Houston manager Larry Dierker said. "We'd have one good game, two bad games."
The Braves advance to face NL East rival New York, a team it defeated nine times in 12 games. New York ousted Arizona in four games.
Two-run singles by Eddie Perez and Gerald Williams highlighted a five-run sixth inning for Atlanta, which strung together five straight singles in the frame. Chipper Jones, Bret Boone and Andruw Jones added RBI for the Braves, who recorded 15 hits against five Astro pitchers.
Houston starter Shane Reynolds (1-1), who bested Maddux in Game One, was not as fortunate today. He surrendered four runs and nine hits over five-plus innings. Chris Holt really hurt the Astros, allowing singles to all three batters he faced in the decisive sixth.
"Smoltz pitched good and we didn't score any runs," Reynolds said. "I was just trying to keep it close and hopefully we could score some runs later, but it didn't work out."
With Atlanta leading 2-0, Brian Jordan reached on an infield single to begin the sixth and Ryan Klesko singled to right to put runners at the corners. Holt came on for Reynolds and Andruw Jones ripped an RBI single to left center. Both runners moved up when Billy Spiers bobbled the ball and Perez made it 5-0 with a single off the glove off Holt and up the middle.
Walt Weiss, the fielding hero of Game Three, singled and Dierker opted for Scott Elarton. Smoltz bunted the runners over and Williams made the strategy pay off with a single up the middle.
The five runs scored in the inning were one shy of the Division Series record.
But Houston had the chance to erase three seasons of Division Series frustration. They got a run in the seventh on Tony Eusebio's homer and four more in the eighth, highlighted by Ken Caminiti's three-run homer.
After Tim Bogar doubled home Eusebio with one out in the eighth, Kevin McGlinchey induced pinch-hitter Daryle Ward to ground out. The Braves turned to Rocker, the team's hero in Game Three.
The reliever, who pitched out of a bases-loaded, none out jam in the 10th on Friday, struck out Biggio swinging to end the inning. Biggio, a career .293 hitter, is just 5-for-42 in Division Series play.
Rocker remained in the game in the ninth and walked Stan Javier. A wild pitch moved Javier to second but Bagwell struck out on a check swing, Everett struck out swinging and Caminiti flied out to deep center field. Bagwell, a career .304 hitter, is 5-for-39 in Division Series play.
Everett was 2-for-15 in the series.
"We kept our composure, but the momentum kind of turned," Jordan admitted. "We battled back the next inning and Rocker shut the door. Then, they didn't have that much momentum."
"They got some breaks against us and destiny just had something to do with that," Dierker added. "The last three games were very emotionally draining but I feel that all three games could have gone either way. You've got to have some luck on your side at times. And that is what they had. Look what happened yetserday against Rocker."
After losing a decisive fifth game at home in 10 innings against Philadelphia in the 1980 NLCS, the Astros blew a ninth-inning lead against the New York Mets in Game Six of the 1986 Series in the Astrodome. They went on to lose that series and are just 5-8 all-time at home in the postseason.
Smoltz allowed four runs and six hits over seven innings. He walked three, struck out three and allowed the homers to Eusebio and Caminiti. He improved to 13-3 in postseason play and has a Division Series ERA of 2.82 ERA.
"To be able to contribute to this kind of series victory is incredible," Smoltz said. "This my time of the year. This has been a special year.
"Everyone expected us to go on, but the reality is that they probably should have won yesterday. We got a break and Rocker was unbelievable. I was determined yesterday that if we lost, it was my job to get us back to Atlanta. But if we won, it was my job to clinch."
Terry Mulholland and McGlinchy each retired a hitter in the eighth before Rocker notched his first save of the series. The Atlanta bullpen combined to allow two runs and six hits over eight innings in Houston.
Houston, which clinched the NL Central title on the final day of the regular season, survived a season in which it lost slugging outfielder Moises Alou to a season-ending knee injury just prior to spring training and Dierker for 27 games following brain surgery midway through the campaign.
"I'm proud as hell of making the playoffs considering what we went through this year," Bagwell said. "It's not that easy to get into the playoffs."
"It's tough," Everett said. "We had a great group this year.
There could be some changes, but I am not in a position to say.
We have a great team here, everyone has a lot of heart. We could have just died when it was 7-1, but we didn't, we stuck with it and almost came back."