Braves cap rally in 9th, stay alive, force Game 5

Astros' bullpen fails to preserve Clemens' 3-run lead

Atlanta goes home for finale after 6-5 victory


October 11, 2004|By Ben Bolch | Ben Bolch,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOUSTON - The raucous sellout crowd that gathered yesterday afternoon inside Minute Maid Park to cheer Roger Clemens and the Houston Astros to the franchise's first playoff series victory may have witnessed a historic moment, all right.

Only it was the kind of moment that for so long has turned Astros fans' faces every shade of orange and red featured on the team's retro jerseys.

After Clemens pitched five solid innings and departed with a three-run lead, the Atlanta Braves pounced on the Houston bullpen for a 6-5 victory in Game 4 of a National League Division Series that might have marked the final start of Clemens' Hall of Fame career.

Adam LaRoche's three-run home run in the sixth tied the score, and J.D. Drew's two-out, full-count single in the ninth drove in Rafael Furcal with the winning run for the Braves, who evened the best-of-five series at two games apiece and will host Game 5 tonight.

Jaret Wright, the Game 1 loser, starts for the Braves tonight at Turner Field against 20-game winner Roy Oswalt, who didn't get a decision in Game 2 and will pitch on three days' rest.

"This is a game we should have lost," said Atlanta closer John Smoltz, who contributed two of his team's six scoreless innings of relief. "They've basically dominated the series, but now it comes down to one game."

The Braves have lost their last two NL Division Series Game 5s at Turner Field, to the San Francisco Giants in 2002 and to the Chicago Cubs last season.

But Atlanta was grateful merely to reach another Game 5 yesterday after escaping a scare in the bottom of the ninth, when Smoltz got Jeff Kent to ground into a game-ending double play with runners on first and third.

"I was honestly trying to get a double-play ball, get him to pull an outside pitch," said Smoltz, who earned the victory. "It kind of happened in slow motion."

That wasn't the case in the eighth, when Smoltz won a footrace with pinch hitter Orlando Palmeiro to first base on Palmeiro's chopper to second baseman Marcus Giles, stranding runners on first and third.

Clemens, pitching on three days of rest for the first time since April 2002, gave up two runs in the third but escaped jams in the second and fourth, benefiting from two double plays. The 42-year-old said he pitched the fifth only after "begging and pleading" to stay in the game, but the Astros had to like their chances after striking for five runs in the third to take a 5-2 lead.

Atlanta starter Russ Ortiz was poised to escape the inning with only one run scoring, on Clemens' bases-loaded sacrifice fly, before the Astros benefited from their decision to close their roof. Two pitches after his soaring popup deflected off the roof and was ruled foul - even though Ortiz made a nice play to catch it - Craig Biggio smacked a three-run home run to left.

Carlos Beltran followed with a double and scored on Jeff Bagwell's single to left, putting the Astros in excellent position to extend their franchise-record 19-game home winning streak and break their 0-7 record in postseason series.

Clemens retired the Braves in order in the fifth, striking out Furcal and Drew, though he later acknowledged that by that point he was having trouble generating his normal velocity because his legs were tired.

"He was at the end of his road," Houston manager Phil Garner said. "As a matter of fact, he was on pure fumes. But Roger did his job today. We had some momentum, we had the lead. We let it slip away."

Reliever Chad Qualls yielded LaRoche's home run that reached the second deck in right-center on a hanging slider.

"It was a little momentum swing, I think, for the guys that were down, thinking this might be our last game," said LaRoche, who hit his first postseason homer. "That turned the emotions around and kind of gave guys a boost, I think."

Mike Gallo, Dan Miceli and Brad Lidge combined for two scoreless innings before Garner had Palmeiro hit for Lidge in the eighth with the potential go-ahead run on third.

"You have to give them credit for a fantastic play," Garner said of Giles' flip to Smoltz to retire Palmeiro. "Giles could have easily thrown the ball a little bit wide, a little bit low; Smoltz could have hesitated one second to get over there."

Reliever Russ Springer, a former Brave, got off to a promising start in the ninth, striking out Eddie Perez and Charles Thomas on 93-mph fastballs. But Springer hit Furcal on a 2-2 pitch, and Furcal picked a perfect time to steal second, on a 77-mph curve.

"That's Fooky's game," Chipper Jones said of Furcal. "He's not paid to stand at first."

Drew then ripped a high fastball to right-center for the winner, helping the Braves become the first team to beat the Astros in Minute Maid Park since the Cubs did it on Aug. 22.

"The playoffs aren't about batting averages," said Drew, who had stepped to the plate hitting .133 in the series. "They're about team effort, and we had everyone contribute."

Said Jones: "We want to go as far as we can go on sheer guts and willpower. For us to come back from a 5-2 deficit against Roger Clemens and this team in this ballpark, that says a lot about this club."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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