MLB Playoff Preview: Braves vs. Astros

Atlanta takes on Houston in Wednesday's game one of the NLDS.

NATIONAL LEAGUE DIVISION SERIES

Atlanta Braves (105-57) versus Houston Astros (93-69)

Game 1 @ ATL: J. Wright(R) (15-8, 3.28 ERA, 159 K) vs. R. Clemens (R) (18-4, 2.98 ERA, 218 K)
Game 2 @ ATL: M. Hampton(L) (13-9, 4.28 ERA, 87 K) vs. R. Oswalt (R) (20-10, 3.49 ERA, 206 K)
Game 3 @ HOU: J. Thomson(R) (14-8, 3.72 ERA, 133 K) vs. B. Backe (R) (5-3, 4.30 ERA, 54 K)
Game 4* @ HOU: R. Ortiz (R) (15-9, 4.13 ERA, 143 K) vs. R. Clemens (R)
Game 5* @ ATL: J. Wright (R) vs. R. Oswalt (R)


OFFENSE
Braves : Since the move back to third, Chipper Jones has returned to his MVP form and the addition of J.D. Drew last winter has replaced much of what the Braves lost when Gary Sheffield left for the Bronx. Rafael Furcal and Marcus Giles are more than solid at the top of the order and catcher Johnny Estrada was the surprise of the lineup in 2004. This unit reminds many of the lineup the Anaheim Angels put out in the 2002 playoffs that ended in a World Series title. It lacks the major fear that the Cardinals, Yankees and Red Sox put into the hearts of every pitching rotation in the league but they make a lot of contact and are not without power.

Key Braves Bat : Andruw Jones- Jones could bust out in the postseason like he did nearly a decade ago against the Yankees in the World Series. If he has a strong series the Braves are in business. Without Jones in top form, Atlanta must pitch their way to the LCS as they will not be able to match the offensive talents of the Astros.

Astros: Since the break, Houston has turned up the Texas heat on the National League and the offense led the way. Lance Berkman is one of the game's most underrated hitters and Jeff Kent is easily the most underappreciated. With Craig Biggio staving off retirement with yet another strong year and Jeff Bagwell padding his Hall of Fame numbers, the Astros have plenty of firepower to jump all over Atlanta pitching. The mid-season acquisition of Carlos Beltran makes this lineup one of the most balanced in recent memory.

Key Astros Bat : Bagwell- The struggles of Bagwell and Biggio in past playoff series' are well-documented but this year might be very different for one simple reason. Neither is the focal point of the offense this time around. Berkman and Beltran remove the pressure from Bagwell's burden and allow for a relaxed approach. Expect Bagwell to finally have his first strong postseason showing.


PITCHING
Braves: Missing the ace starter they always had in the past, Atlanta and pitching coach Leo Mazzone head into the series using a rotation that on paper wouldn't phase a little league lineup. Jaret Wright was the star of the group and the biggest surprise of the year in the NL. Mike Hampton regained some of the form that made him one of the better left-handers in baseball and Russ Ortiz had another solid season and has an abundance of big game playoff experience to help him along his way. Right-hander John Thomson is the only starter without a postseason start.

The fact that John Smoltz is the only household name in the Braves bullpen is astounding considering they were one of the best relief units in the league this season. Antonio Alfonseca and Kevin Gryboski serve as the main setup men while Chris Reitsma and Juan Cruz fill whatever role Mazzone and manager Bobby Cox feel is appropriate at the time. Tom Martin, acquired at the trade deadline from the Los Angeles Dodgers, is the only left-hander available and won't be as necessary in this series as he would be in the LCS, should Atlanta get by the Astros. Houston's lineup is right-hand heavy and the two left-handed hitters are switch-hitters, rendering Martin less crucial.

Key Braves Arm: Cruz- Similar to the way Anaheim uses Scot Shields, Cruz could be the all-important bridge between a short stint from one of the starters to Smoltz in the closer role. Capable of going as many as four or five innings, Cruz's performance could be enormous.

Astros : The turn of events that sent Brandon Backe to the hill on Sunday rather than Roger Clemens could prove to be the single most important factor in this series, and furthermore, the entire postseason for Houston. Being able to send Clemens to the mound in game one sets up the entire series for manager Phil Garner and clearly gives the Astros the advantage in the pitching matchups. Imagine what their rotation would be like if the injury bug didn't bite Andy Pettitte and Wade Miller. Yikes.

When GM Gerry Hunsiker traded Billy Wagner to the Philadelphia Phillies last winter, many balked at the idea that setup man Octavio Dotel could close on a full time basis. Dotel was fine this season until Hunsiker then traded Dotel to the Oakland A's in a three-way deal that landed Carlos Beltran in Houston. Now the closing duties would be handed to second-year right-hander Brad Lidge. Lidge has far exceeded expectations and saved 29 games since being named the stopper. The 27-year-old broke the league record for strikeouts by a reliever with 157 and posted a 1.90 ERA in 80 games.

Key Astros Arm : Backe- If Backe can pitch well enough to win game three, Houston can re-arrange the rotation to best fit the LCS, whether the Astros sweep or simply take a 2-1 lead in after three games. Being able to start the next series with Clemens or Oswalt could be the difference between a World Series appearance and a colossal beating in the next round.


DEFENSE
Braves Outfield : Andruw Jones still anchors the Bravos outfield and Drew adds a solid all-around defender to the group. Charles Thomas in left field adds ranage that Chipper Jones didn't have. With bench help such as Eli Marrero, Atlanta can feel comfortable sending in a pinch-hitter for Thomas if the situation dictates.

Astros Outfield: Offensively the Atsros outfield is as good as it gets. Defensively it got measurably better when Biggio slid to left, Berkman moved to right, and Beltran was inserted into center. All possess better than average arms and range for their positions, and only Biggio lacks the natural instincts, having began his career as a catcher and a second baseman.

Braves Infield : At one point this season the infield was a disaster. Giles was on the DL, Jones was in LF, and the 1B spot was unsettled between Julio Franco and Adam LaRoche. Since the end of July, Jones has solidified the hot corner, Giles is pushing to be the best second-sacker in baseball, with the bat as well as the glove, and the Franco-LaRoche platoon has been solid if unspectacular. Furcal can be erratic at shortstop but is usually able to tighten the screws on his glove when it counts. Estrada is solid behind the plate and is learning how to call a game from the best pitching coach in baseball.

Astros Infield : Left-side patchwork and two right side hall of famers take the field for the ‘Stros. Kent and Bagwell are decent fielders who lead with their bat while Morgan Ensberg and Mike Lamb share third base duties. Both are solid defenders with Ensberg the better of the two. At short, Adam Everett and Jose Vizcaino were platooning most of the year until Everett was injured. Garner placed Everett on the playoff roster and will use him when defense is at its most crucial. Catcher Brad Ausmus is well-known to be one of the better game-callers in baseball and does everything well except throw.


Manager Analysis
Bobby Cox has the clear advantage here as far as experience goes and with the aid of Mazzone, Terry Pendleton and Pat Corrales, Cox leans on one of the best staffs in the business. Having been in the postseason every year for the past 13 full seasons, you'd think the Braves would have the managerial advantage here…

… But I don't think they do. Something happened at the All-Star Break this season that we might be talking about all winter long. The Astros fired Jimy Williams and named Phil Garner as the new manager. Garner must have done something right because 72 games later the Astros went from 44-44 to 92-70. A 46-26 showing by Garner combined with the momentum that Houston is rolling with, brings me to believe that whatever "scrap iron" is doing is working to the fullest.

InsidethePark.com Prediction: Astros in four-
I don't think there is any way that Atlanta beats Roger Clemens or Roy Oswalt twice and since that is the way it is scripted, the pick is Houston.



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