Jones followed a crucial error by shortstop Julio Lugo in the top of the eighth inning by greeting Wagner with a three-run homer as the Atlanta Braves rallied for a 7-4 triumph over the Astros in Game One of the National League Division Series.
Houston has lost 12 of its last 14 playoff games and suffered seven straight blown saves in the process. With his team now in a hole, Astros manager Larry Dierker is sure to face some second-guessing over his decisions in the decisive eighth.
With Houston holding a 3-2 lead, Dierker pinch-hit for starting pitcher Wade Miller in the bottom of the seventh and turned over the game to Mike Jackson instead of Octavio Dotel, who emerged as one of the top setup men in the league this season.
Jackson (0-1) immediately ran into trouble, surrendering a leadoff double to pinch hitter Keith Lockhart. Pinch hitter Ken Caminiti struck out, but Marcus Giles singled under the glove of second baseman Craig Biggio to tie the game.
Slow-footed Julio Franco grounded to Lugo, but the ball bounced off the heel of his glove. Instead of getting an inning-ending double play, the Astros did not get an out.
Dierker called on Wagner, who never had surrendered a hit to Jones in eight career at-bats. But Jones, who had struck out in six of those at-bats, lined the first pitch just above the left field wall for a 6-3 lead.
"Wagner is a guy that rushes it up there and fortunately I was able to get good wood on it," Jones said. "I was aware of my lack of success against him but it is my job to go up there and still get a hit off them. That hit was a long time in waiting."
"I'm going to go back out there Wednesday and if Chipper is up, I'm going to come in and try and strike him out," Wagner said. "That's my job. We all know how well we are doing against the other hitters. ... I knew Chipper hasn't hit well off me. That's what happens, that's the way it is."
Following the game, Dierker was curt with the media and did not fully address his decision to go with Jackson over Dotel.
"If I said I put in Dotel, you'd (the media) would say, 'Why not Mike Jackson?' Check the record," Dierker responded to the first question asked in his postgame news conference.
Jackson allowed four runs in 2 2/3 innings against the Braves this season while Dotel gave up five runs in eight innings. But all five of those runs came in a start in April and he threw three scoreless innings in relief against Atlanta in August.
"We look at that stuff (pitching matchups) all the time, too," Cox said. "But that doesn't dictate whether or not you pitch to a guy or whatever. Some of those are over the course of two years back or something. Chipper can hit anybody. You know, it was a pitch he could handle. And Wagner, as we know, generally -- they feel like we do with (Braves closer John) Smoltz. When Wagner comes in a game, the game's over."
The Braves, who are competing in their 10th straight postseason, seized home-field advantage from the NL Central champs and have a huge edge in the pitching matchup for Game Two.
"It's huge," Jones said of taking the series opener. "It's big. As a team coming in on the road in the playoffs, your first goal -- your worst-case scenario is, 'I want to leave here with a split.' If you win Game One and have an opportunity to come out and win Game Two, you certainly want to take advantage of that. So we've accomplished our worst-case scenario. Now we'll try for the best-case scenario."
Miller allowed two runs and seven hits, striking out six without a walk. The 25-year-old righthander, making his first career postseason appearance, surrendered a run in the first, a solo homer to Brian Jordan in the fourth and little else.
He threw just 92 pitches, 64 for strikes, and was pulled with a runner at first and one out, adding to speculation that he could have remained in the game.
Atlanta ace Greg Maddux was uncharacteristically wild in a six-inning stint. The veteran righthander allowed three runs -- two earned -- and four hits but walked three after walking just 27 in 233 innings in the regular season.
Rudy Seanez tossed a hitless seventh inning (1-0) and notched the win. Cox went to a well-rested Smoltz, who allowed a solo homer to Vinny Castilla in the ninth but notched the save.
"I just went out there to take care of business," Smoltz said. "This is the way we have to play but we can't keep having to come back like this. We don't want the pressure to get any greater."
The Braves took the lead in the first as Giles singled, took third one out later on a single by Jones and scored on a sacrifice fly by Jordan.
Maddux got double plays in the second and third and Jordan continued to torment Houston with his third career Division Series homer. Jordan batted .471 against Houston in the 1999 postseason and .423 vs. the Astros this year.
"Well, I knew Miller was throwing me away, away, away," Jordan said. "He had two strikes, one ball. I knew he was gonna try to blow that inside fastball (by me). I was kind of looking for it. When I first hit it, you know, I knew I had a chance. But I think any other ballpark it would have just been an out."
"I threw a good slider to Ausmus but he got a good swing on it," Maddux said. "The bad pitch that inning was the ball four to Hidalgo, when I walked him. That created the inning."
Lugo reached on an error by Braves shortstop Rey Sanchez to open the sixth and Jeff Bagwell singled. After Lance Berkman bounced into a forceout at second, Moises Alou grounded weakly to third, scoring Lugo for a 3-2 lead.
Solo homers by Andruw Jones and Castilla accounted for the final margin.