Houston vs. Atlanta

Playoff Preview



STRENGTHS -- After a 15-30 start that sparked rumors of trading Roger Clemens, the Houston Astros bounced off the mat to earn the wild card on the final day of the season. With Andy Pettitte going 11-2 since the All-Star break, Clemens taking his seventh ERA title with a career-best 1.87 and Roy Oswalt winning 20 games in back-to-back seasons, the Astros have enough starting pitching to make up for a below-average lineup. Brad Lidge has established himself as an elite closer with 42 saves. Plain-spoken manager Phil Garner is regarded as one of the game's top motivators.

WEAKNESSES -- Houston ranks near the bottom in National League hitting despite playing in one of the most hitter-friendly ballparks. The Astros have never made it to a World Series. They fell to St. Louis in Game 7 of the 2004 NLCS.

KEY TO THE SERIES -- This is exactly what hometown heroes Clemens and Pettitte plotted when they left the Yankees after 2003. An arm injury kept Pettitte from the postseason last year, but he's as dominating as ever and ready to make amends. Houston's starters led the league with a 3.46 ERA, so if the lineup can scratch across a few runs, their postseason experience could be the determining factor.


STRENGTHS -- Perennial Gold Glove center fielder Andruw Jones became a true MVP candidate this year, leading the Braves with a stellar all-around season. In spite of an influx of rookies, Atlanta led the league in fielding and finished sixth in both pitching and hitting. The addition of strong-armed Kyle Farnsworth has helped turn the bullpen from a weakness into a strength.

WEAKNESSES -- Middle relief remains a sore spot, and the bullpen has a 4.74 ERA, fifth worst in the NL. That means starters John Smoltz and Tim Hudson may have to work longer. After a sensational start, rookie Jeff Francoeur is hitting .235 since Sept. 1, adding another notch of credibility to the Sports Illustrated cover jinx.

KEY TO THE SERIES -- The Braves' kids must step up to avoid a first-round upset, and the middle relievers have to pitch over their heads.

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