Preview: Astros vs. Braves

added 10/4/2004 by Ray Kerby

2004 NLDS Playoffs: Houston Astros (92-70) vs Atlanta Braves (96-66)

For the fourth time in the past 8 years, the Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves will meet a National League Divisional Series playoff. While the Astros stormed into the playoffs with a 7-game win streak (19 at home!) and a 36-10 stretch since mid-August, that means little once the playoffs start. The Braves shared a similar momentum, winning 7 of their final 9 games.

Will History Repeat?

The Braves dominated each of the three previous meetings, winning 9 of the 10 games played. However, their last post-season matchup with the Astros was in 2001 and there are many indications that this year could end with a different result. For starters, the starting pitchers are completely different. And considering how the Atlanta starters dominated Houston in 1997, 1999 and 2001, this is a very big deal. Just how different are the starters? Try 100%. Not a single Astros starter from those series is on Houston’s post-season roster (Wade Miller is on the DL), and not a single Braves starter from those series is on Atlanta’s roster. Anyone expecting a replay of those lopsided playoff rounds is going to be sorely disappointed. In fact, the only commonality is former Astro Mike Hampton, who is expected to start Game 2 for the Braves.

On offense, the Astros have been completely made over since 2001. Of course, Brad Ausmus, Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio are still around. Lance Berkman went 2-for-12 in the 2001 series, his only one against the Braves. The other 5 starters have been replaced: Richard Hidalgo (Carlos Beltran), Julio Lugo (Jose Vizcaino), Vinny Castilla (Morgan Ensberg) and Moises Alou (Jeff Kent at 2B). Conclusion: do not expect any mental carry-over from games that were played over three years ago.

The Starters
Position AstroHRRBIAvg. BraveHRRBIAvg.
Catcher Brad Ausmus531.248 Johnny Estrada976.314 Edge: Braves. A big doubles hitter, Estrada’s RBI are inflated by batting #5.
First Base Jeff Bagwell2789.266 Adam Laroche (L)1345.278 Edge: Astros. Bagwell is back in form, hitting better than his season stats indicate.
Julio Franco (R)657.309
Second Base Jeff Kent27107.289 Marcus Giles848.311 Edge: Astros. Kent’s bat easily makes up for Giles’ defensive edge.
Third Base Mike Lamb (L)1458.288 Chipper Jones3096.248 Edge: Braves. Chipper has moved back to 3B, but is still shaky in his worst offensive year since his rookie season.
Morgan Ensberg (R)1066.275
Shortstop Jose Vizcaino333.274 Rafael Furcal1459.279 Edge: None. Equivalent hitters, Furcal has youth to Vizcaino's experience.
Left Field Craig Biggio2463.281 Eli Marrero1040.320 Edge: None. Two former catchers, now in left field. Neither is a great fielder, but Biggio is the better player.
Center Field Carlos Beltran38104.267 Andruw Jones2991.261 Edge: None.
Right Field Lance Berkman30106.316 J.D. Drew3193.305 Edge: None.
WLERA WLERA
Starter #1 Roger Clemens1842.98 Jaret Wright1583.28 Edge: Astros. The Cy Young vs. the Comeback Player of the Year. I'll take the Cy Young.
Starter #2 Roy Oswalt20103.49 Mike Hampton1394.28 Edge: Astros. Oswalt is in his prime; Hampton is past his.
Starter #3 Brandon Backe534.30 John Thomson1483.72 Edge: Braves. Thomson is nursing a side strain. If it wasn't a problem, he'd be starting Game 1.
SVKERA SVKERA
Closer Brad Lidge291571.90 John Smoltz44852.76 Edge: Astros. Lidge is literally unhittable, setting the K record for relievers while Smoltz is getting more hittable with age.

2004 Matchups

The two teams split their 6 games in the regular season, with both clubs losing 2 of 3 games at home. A brief summary of each game:

May 7th: Astros 5, Braves 3
Tim Redding made a nice start for the Astros for his first win of the season: 6 innings, 1 run. Redding is long gone so this is irrelevant. The Braves, however, sent John Thomson to the mound and watched him get torched for 5 runs in 6 innings. Jeff Kent and Lance Berkman did the most damage, with 3 hits apiece.

May 8th: Braves 5, Astros 4 (10 innings)
Roy Oswalt started for Houston and allowed 3 runs in 7 innings. Horacio Ramirez allowed 3 runs in 6 innings but, like Redding, will not be starting this post-season against Houston so his performance is not relevant. J.D. Drew and Andruw Jones had two hits apiece, and one of Jones’ was a game-winning homer against Ricky Stone in the 10th

May 9th: Astros 2, Braves 1
Andy Pettitte pitched a great game against Russ Ortiz. If Atlanta manager Bobby Cox goes with a four-man rotation, then we may say Ortiz in Game 4. He was dominant against the Astros, allowing just two hits in 6 innings, while striking out 9. However, the Astros were started Orlando Palmeiro, Adam Everett, Richard Hidalgo and Mike Lamb that game, so Ortiz may not do so well against Biggio, Bagwell and Beltran.

Aug 4th: Astros 3, Braves 2
Roger Clemens started for Houston and pitched a good game, allowing just 4 hits and 2 runs in 7 innings. Russ Ortiz allowed just 2 runs in 7 innings, but was not nearly as dominant. With the exception of a start by Adam Everett, the Astros fielded what would be their post-season lineup and banged out 7 hits against Ortiz. This is relevant only if Ortiz starts Game 4.

Aug 5th: Braves 5, Astros 4
John Thomson found a way to beat the Astros, relying more on his breaking pitches to hold Houston to 2 runs and 4 hits in 7 innings. This was a conscious decision on Thomson’s part and may be an omen for Game 2. Pete Munro started for the Astros and was lit up, but it won’t really matter since he’s not going to start any October games.

Aug 6th: Braves 6, Astros 5
Mike Hampton started for the Braves and was beat up by his former teammates, allowing 7 hits and 5 runs in just over 4 innings. He also walked 6 batters. Is this a good sign? Let’s hope so. Darren Oliver started for Houston, so that’s irrelevant for the post-season.

Conclusion: All of the games were decided by 1 or 2 runs, so don’t put a lot of stock in the 3-3 split. An odd bounce here or there could have changed the outcome of any of those games. Considering the heavy turnover in the Astros rotation, the Braves had just a single look at Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens. They haven’t faced Brandon Backe at all, so that’s a plus for Houston. On the other hand, the Astros had two games against John Thomson, the best starter on the Atlanta staff. Even better, they roughed up Mike Hampton in their one outing against him. They didn’t get a look at Jared Wright, who will start Game 1 for the Braves.

Forecast: Orange skies for Atlanta sunset

Here are my game-by-game predictions for the best-of-five series between Atlanta and Houston. Starters for the first 3 games are projected. Starters for Games 4 and 5 will vary according to the outcome of earlier games.

Game 1 at Atlanta: Roger Clemens (18-4, 2.98) vs. Jaret Wright (15-10, 3.28)
The mystery of this game will be Jaret Wright. A career AL pitcher, the Astros have had almost no exposure to him. Carlos Beltran, however, has looked good against him in a few at-bats (5-for-12). Wright's career was pulled from the garbage bin when the Braves picked him up on waivers last year. As a result, he has tossed far more innings in 2004 than in any other year since 1998. His fastball reaches the upper 90s, so there is a real chance that he could mow down the Houston hitters if he can handle the playoff pressure. That, however, is a big “if”. By gametime,Wright will have tossed only 2 innings in the past 12 days, so he could come out rusty and get pegged in the early innings. Roger Clemens, on the other hand, is a known quantity and the probably Cy Young winner. No one on the current Braves team has hit well against him, so this bodes well for Houston. The outcome will depend on how well Clemens has recuperated from his stomach virus and if the Astros can get to Wright. This looks to be a low-scoring game with the Astros coming out on top.
Prediction: Astros win.

Game 2 at Atlanta: Roy Oswalt (20-10, 3.49) ) vs. Mike Hampton (13-9, 4.28)
In what looks to be a matchup of Houston’s “old guard” vs. their “new guard”, Mike Hampton takes the mound in Game 2 against Roy Oswalt and his former teammates. The Houston hitters have had moderate success against Hampton although Beltran (5-for-7) and Berkman (5-for-14) have been better than average. If his August start is any indication, though, Hampton may be in for a rough day. This is especially true because the Braves will be facing Roy Oswalt, the league’s only 20-game winner. However, a few Braves have had success against Oswalt: Andruw Jones .500 (5-for-10), Eli Marrero .333 (5-for-15), and J.D. Drew .333 (5-for-15). Oswalt should outlast Hampton, who will lose some effectiveness in the middle innings before the Atlanta bullpen can bail him out.
Prediction: Astros win.

Game 3 in Houston: Brandon Backe (5-3, 4.30) vs. John Thomson (14-8, 3.72)
Throwing the 26-year-old Backe against the Braves’ best starter looks to give a real advantage to the Braves. However, Thomson is recovering from a strained side, which is why he has been pushed back to Game 3. Before the injury, Thomson was very effective down the stretch for Atlanta and shows no signs of a late-season burnout. However, many of the Astros have hit him very well in the past and I expect that trend to continue, despite his success against them in August with a heavier reliance on off-speed pitches. Jeff Kent has been absolutely brutal against Thomson, batting .517 with 3 homers in 33 at-bats. Other Astros: Vizcaino .417 (5-for-12), Biggio .333 (8-for-24), and Berkman .400 (4-for-10). Bagwell is batting just .182 (4-for-22) but has two homers against Thomson. If Thomson pitches to form, things could get ugly for the Braves. The big wildcard will be Backe, whom the Braves have had no exposure. This could give the Galveston native an early edge and manager Phil Garner will be ready with an early hook for the youngster. Expect Thomson to outlast Backe, but lose anyway as the Braves are unable to dent Houston’s well-rested bullpen.
Prediction: Astros win and sweep series, 3-0

Game 4 in Houston: unnecessary

Game 5 in Atlanta: unnecessary

Summary

Once again, I predict an Astros sweep in 3 games.