ATLANTA (Ticker) -- The Atlanta Braves returned to the National League Championship Series after a one-year absence. The Houston Astros just returned to an offseason of criticism and questions.
Behind 6 1/3 solid innings by John Burkett and two-run homers by Paul Bako and Chipper Jones, the Braves posted a 6-2 triumph over the Astros and completed a three-game sweep of their NL Division Series.
The Braves have competed in nine of the last 10 NL Championship Series and bounced Houston three times along the way. After getting swept in last year's Division Series by the St. Louis Cardinals, Atlanta struggled to 88 wins, its fewest total in its remarkable postseason run.
But the Braves got a clutch three-run homer from Jones in the series opener and well-pitched games by Tom Glavine and Burkett in the final two contests to close out the Astros.
"You face (Greg) Maddux, Glavine and Burkett," said Astros second baseman Craig Biggio, who is 7-for-54 in his postseason career. "They speak for themselves. They have a plan. They stick to their plan. Their defense sticks to their plan. There is a reason why they are successful the way they are. Besides talent, I think Bobby Cox is one of the best managers in the game. A lot of things go unnoticed over there."
Houston won three straight Central Division titles from 1997-1999 but went 2-9 in Division Series play. After Astros closer Billy Wagner vowed to "stomp" the Braves, Houston managed to score just six runs in this series.
"You just accept it," Astros manager Larry Dierker said. "I couldn't be happier about the way we played in the regular season. Honestly, in the postseason, I felt like we had a better team than the Braves."
Houston fell to 0-7 in postseason elimination games and closed its 2001 season with 12 losses in its last 15 games.
The Astros caught a bad break when rookie phenom Roy Oswalt suffered a groin strain late in the regular season and could not pitch in the playoffs. But Atlanta's offense was not the problem as much as Houston's inability to get a clutch hit.
"(Management) really has done everything they can for us to go all the way," Astros right fielder Moises Alou said. "I feel we've let them down. We couldn't perform in the postseason."
"We just didn't get it done again, it's just baffling," Astros veteran first baseman Jeff Bagwell said. "We put a great team out there. We just have not gotten it done. You can look at a whole bunch of things."
Atlanta will face the winner of the Arizona-St. Louis series in the best-of-seven NLCS beginning Tuesday. The Braves would host St. Louis in Game One but would have to travel to Arizona.
"It would be nice to have home-field advantage but either team presents the same thing that Houston does -- great starting pitching," said John Smoltz, who closed out all three games.
"You can't look ahead, both teams are good," Maddux said. "Both teams have tremendous pitching. They both can throw runs on the board with the best of them. I'm going to sit back and enjoy it."
Burkett (1-0), a 36-year-old righthander who was an All-Star this season, allowed two runs and six hits in 6 1/3 innings. He walked two and struck out four.
"I came in a lot early in the count," Burkett said. "I thought we pitched away a lot the first two games and I wanted to change that up a bit. When you are up 2-0, you want to win the third game. If you lose, the momentum switches."
Astros starter Shane Reynolds (0-1), who led Houston to victory in Sunday's regular season finale, was tagged for four runs and six hits in four innings.
Houston had a chance to make a statement in the first when Bagwell walked and Lance Berkman singled with two outs. But Alou, who was 10-for-23 lifetime against Burkett, grounded back to the mound.
Reynolds worked around a two-out single in the bottom of the first and Houston left another runner in scoring position in the second. A decision by Dierker came back to haunt him in the bottom half.
Rey Sanchez doubled with two outs and Dierker opted to have Reynolds pitch to Bako with first base open and the pitcher on deck. Bako, who had been 0-for-5 in the series, foiled the strategy by lacing a 1-2 pitch over wall in right-center field for a 2-0 lead.
"It was a fastball that caught some of the plate," Bako said. "I got good wood on it. I played for Dierker and I knew he doesn't like to pitch around the eighth hole. I thought they would go right at me but I knew they would be careful."
"We elected, as we almost always do, to try to get the eighth hitter out so we can start the next inning with the pitcher," Dierker said. "I realize sometimes when you do that the guy's gonna get a hit and drive in that run. There has been a few times when I managed here where the guy has gotten a hit and driven in that run. I think this was the first time in five years where the guy's hit a home run. With all the experience Shane has and the kind of control he's got, I'm just dumbfounded that he made a pitch the guy could hit out of the park in that situation, particularly with two strikes in the count."
Bako, playing for the injured catcher Javy Lopez, has made the most of his opportunity, batting .400 (10-for-25) in nine starts since Lopez went down the final week of the regular season.
Making Bako's clutch play Friday more impressive was that he spent a portion of the morning in Louisiana, where his wife was expecting their second child. The long-time backup credited a pregame nap and plenty of coffee for getting through the contest.
The Astros attempted to answer in the third as Biggio opened the inning with a single and one-out later Bagwell drew his fifth walk of the series. But Berkman flied to right-center and Alou grounded to shortstop. The All-Stars were a combined 4-for-24 in the series.
"We haven't hit the way we're supposed to hit," Alou added. "This year we faced Maddux, Glavine and Burkett. They really pitched well. We either faced good pitching or didn't perform like we're supposed to. Personally I feel like I failed."
The Braves extended their lead to 3-0 in the third when Julio Franco hit a 3-1 pitch over the wall in left-center field. It was the first career postseason homer for the 43-year-old Franco.
"The first at-bat, he threw me a forkball and I missed it," Franco said. "The guys told me he only throws his forkball when he is behind, In that situation, I was waiting for a pitch to drive and he left a forkball high and I was lucky enough to hit it out of the ballpark."
Bako's squeeze in the fourth pushed Arizona's lead to 4-0. Andruw Jones singles and took third on a hit-and-run single by Sanchez. Bako dropped down a bunt as Andruw Jones broke for home for a four-run cushion.
Alou doubled with two outs in the sixth but Burkett struck out Vinny Castilla to end the inning. He retired Richard Hidalgo to open the seventh and Tony Eusebio reached on an infield hit. Daryle Ward batted for Nelson Cruz and crushed a 1-1 pitch over the right-field wall to cut the deficit to 4-2.
Reed came on for Burkett and retired Biggio and Remlinger got Jose Vizcaino on a flyout to right.
Octavio Dotel allowed a one-out double to Bako in the seventh but got the next two batters. Karsay took over in the eighth and easily retired Bagwell, Berkman and Alou.
Franco began the eighth with a single to right and Chipper Jones followed with his second homer of the series and 10th career postseason homer.
Smoltz came on and struck out Castilla and Hidalgo before pinch hitter Brad Ausmus flied to center.