- The Washington Times - Friday, October 7, 2005

ATLANTA — The rookie rocked the Rocket, John Smoltz picked up where he left off six years ago, and the Atlanta Braves find themselves all even with the Houston Astros in the National League playoffs.

Brian McCann hit a three-run homer in his first postseason at-bat off Roger Clemens, which were all the runs Smoltz needed to lead the Braves past Houston 7-1 last night, tying the best-of-five NL Division Series at one game apiece.

“That’s the most excited I’ve ever been on the baseball field,” said McCann, who went back on the field to tip his cap at the urging of manager Bobby Cox.

Smoltz broke a one-day tie with Houston’s Andy Pettitte to reclaim the title of baseball’s winningest postseason pitcher. The right-hander improved to 15-4 with seven strong innings in his first October start since the 1999 World Series.

“There’s a thousand emotions going through my head right now,” Smoltz said. “It’s a great feeling. I’m going to sleep a long time tonight.”

With the NL East champion Braves having bounced back from a 10-5 loss in Game 1, the series shifts to Houston. Twenty-game winner Roy Oswalt is set to go against Atlanta’s surprising 13-game winner, Jorge Sosa, tomorrow.

The Astros hope Oswalt looks better than Clemens, who led the majors in ERA (1.87) at age 43 but was bothered late in the season by a sore hamstring and also was stung emotionally by the death of his mother.

“The home run killed us,” Clemens said.

At 21, McCann was an unlikely player to hit it. He was born less than three months before Clemens made his major league debut for the Boston Red Sox in 1984, and started the season with Class AA Mississippi.

With two outs and two on in the second, McCann drove a 2-0 fastball into the right-field seats to put the Braves up 3-1. Clemens knew he was in trouble as soon as the ball left his hand.

“I was able to pick it up,” he said. “I saw the ball cutting. It was definitely a pitch I wanted back when I saw it cutting back over the plate.”

McCann, one of 18 rookies to play for the Braves this season, became the first player in Braves history — including Boston and Milwaukee, too — to homer in his first trip to the plate in the postseason.

He got the ball, too. It deflected into the Atlanta bullpen, where fellow rookie Macay McBride caught it. He delivered it to McCann in the clubhouse after the game.

“That won’t sink in for a while,” McCann said. “[Clemens] is one of the greatest pitchers of all time. He just got a pitch over the plate and I connected. It was neat.”

The Braves stretched their lead to 5-1 in the third. Adam LaRoche hit an opposite-field double to bring home two more runs. The ball slipped under the glove of diving left fielder Orlando Palmeiro before rolling all the way to the wall.

With Smoltz on the mound — stiff shoulder and all — the lead was secure. This is what he yearned for after spending three-plus seasons as the Braves closer, a role that left his playoff fortunes in the hands of others.

Smoltz had to wait an extra day to make this long-awaited playoff start, getting bumped from the expected Game 1 nod to give his shoulder a little extra rest.

No problem, considering how long he already had waited.

Back in that 1999 World Series, Smoltz’s last year as a starter before an elbow injury cost him an entire season and prompted his move to the bullpen, he struck out 11 in Game 4 against the Yankees.

It wasn’t enough to keep New York from completing the sweep with a 4-1 victory. And the winning pitcher that day? Clemens, who was back to face Smoltz, now 38, in the oldest pitching matchup in postseason history.

The Braves added two more runs in the seventh against reliever Chad Qualls, even with two runners thrown out on the basepaths. Andruw Jones and Jeff Francoeur had RBI singles to give the shaky Braves bullpen a six-run cushion.

Jones, who came into the playoffs mired in a 6-for-51 slump, followed up a Game 1 homer with three more hits, scoring each time.

Chris Reitsma, who retired only one hitter while giving up four runs in the opener, gave up a leadoff single in the eighth but retired the next three hitters. Closer Kyle Farnsworth worked a 1-2-3 ninth.

Houston took a 1-0 lead in the first on a run-scoring single by Jason Lane, but Smoltz escaped a bases-loaded jam by striking out Adam Everett.

“I knew the first inning was going to be my biggest inning,” Smoltz said. “I waited a long time to start a game of this magnitude. When I got through the first inning, that was the biggest test.”

Smoltz threw 93 pitches, his shoulder holding up just fine as he gave up one run and seven hits. His only walk was an intentional one, and he struck out five.

Clemens left after the fifth, his line showing five runs, six hits, three walks and only two strikeouts. It equaled the most earned runs he allowed during a regular-season game, and Houston’s offensive support was about par for the course.

In 20 of the Rocket’s 32 starts coming into the playoffs, the Astros scored three runs or less — including nine shutouts.

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