Monday, October 11, 2004

HOUSTON (AP) — John Smoltz, Adam LaRoche and J.D. Drew saved the Atlanta Braves from another quick playoff exit.

The Braves pounced Houston’s bullpen as soon as Roger Clemens was gone, rallying from a three-run deficit for a 6-5 win yesterday that tied the best-of-5 National League series at two games each.

LaRoche hit a tying, three-run homer in the sixth inning and Drew singled home the go-ahead run in the ninth, handing the Astros their latest agonizing October loss and forcing the series back to Atlanta for Game 5 today.

“We get to go back home, and the plane ride’s a lot easier,” Smoltz said. “We worked very hard to get home-field advantage, and we need to take care of it. I feel like we got a break today.”

Jaret Wright, the Game 1 loser, starts for the Braves today 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.

Working on short rest himself, Clemens left after five innings with a 5-2 lead, but the Braves rallied to snap Houston’s 19-game home winning streak. It was another wrenching postseason loss for the Astros, still looking to win a playoff series for the first time in their 43 seasons.

“Streaks are streaks; they’ve got to come to an end some time,” Braves manager Bobby Cox said.

Houston tried to mount its own comeback in the bottom of the ninth, when Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman singled off Smoltz with one out to put runners at the corners. Smoltz then got his record 14th postseason win when Jeff Kent grounded into a game-ending double play.

On the verge of its third consecutive first-round loss, Atlanta made its move right after Chad Qualls replaced Clemens. Chipper Jones singled, Andruw Jones doubled with one out and LaRoche homered into the Astros’ bullpen in right.

“It was a little momentum swing, I think, for the guys that were down, thinking this might be our last game,” said the 24-year-old rookie, who hit his first postseason homer. “That turned the emotions around and kind of gave guys a boost, I think.”

The winning rally began when Russ Springer, who relieved Brad Lidge to start the ninth, hit Rafael Furcal with a pitch with two outs and Furcal stole second.

Drew, hitless in three previous at-bats and 2-for-15 in the series to that point, singled to right-center, with Furcal scoring easily.

“Three runs is not enough against that team,” Kent said. “And then they bring in a guy like Smoltz, who is dominating. It’s tough to score runs against him. You have to get ahead against them early so you don’t have to face a guy like that.”

Coming into yesterday, Clemens was 0-3 with a 6.98 ERA on three days’ rest. He was making a quick turnaround for the first time since April 11, 2002. And he hadn’t pitched on short rest in the postseason since a loss to Oakland in 2000.

Not surprisingly, the 42-year-old Clemens got off to a rough start.

He gave up three straight singles to begin the second, with Andruw Jones driving in Chipper Jones. LaRoche followed by grounding into a double play that scored Johnny Estrada to give Atlanta a 2-0 lead.

Clemens got the Astros’ offense going in the second with his first postseason RBI, a sacrifice fly that scored Kent.

The inning appeared to end on Craig Biggio’s popup that hit the rafters and was caught by Atlanta starter Russ Ortiz. But the ball was ruled foul, and Biggio followed with a three-run homer that sailed over the left-field fence and sent the crowd into a frenzy.

Carlos Beltran followed with a double and Bagwell singled him in to give the Astros a 5-2 lead.

Shortly after that, the Jumbotron began showing an animated skit in which swarms of killer bees buzz over the Braves’ tomahawk. The skit ended with a single word emblazoned across the Astros’ shooting star logo: Believe.

Not just yet. Houston fell apart when Clemens left, and the sellout crowd of 43,335 got eerily quiet.

“I don’t know what else to tell you except I went up there and gave it everything I had,” Clemens said.

Astros manager Phil Garner vigorously defended his decision to remove Clemens, who retired his final five batters.

“He was at the end of his road,” Garner said. “As a matter of fact, he was on pure fumes. He got us through it. We had some momentum, we had the lead. We let it slip away.”

Chipper Jones had a different take on the Braves’ comeback.

“We overcame a fluke five-run rally,” he said. “You’re just thinking to yourself right there that there is no way we’re going to end our season on that note.”

With the score tied at 5 in the eighth, Houston put runners at the corners and threatened to take the lead.

Orlando Palmeiro hit a grounder that Marcus Giles scooped up and deftly flipped to Smoltz — just before Palmeiro got to the bag — for the final out of the inning.

“This isn’t a new situation,” Houston catcher Brad Ausmus said. “We’ve been on the cusp of being eliminated numerous times. We’ve seen the end of the plank. We’ve seen the shark-infested waters.”

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