A year ago, the Houston Astros sent Randy Johnson to the mound to start their postseason, and the most dominant pitcher down the stretch of the 1998 season lost. Today, the Astros asked slumping Shane Reynolds, a loser in seven of his last nine decisions, to give them some momentum in another opener to a first-round series. He won.
Reynolds held the Atlanta Braves to one run over six innings and rookie Daryle Ward pounded a tie-breaking 400-foot home run off Greg Maddux as Houston beat the Braves, 6-1, in Game 1 of the National League first-round series here today. Game 2 is Wednesday, with Jose Lima (21-10) pitching for the Astros against the Braves' Kevin Millwood (18-7).
Atlanta seemed to have every advantage starting this series. The Braves, who led the majors with 103 wins, were hot down the stretch with victories in 12 of their last 15 games, while Houston was 6-9. Not only had the Braves swept the Astros in the 1997 playoffs in three games, but Atlanta won six of seven games between the teams this year.
Then there was the pitching matchup: Maddux (19-9) vs. Reynolds, who was 14-7 before an Aug. 10 start in Atlanta and 2-7 after. The Astros won't be able to use their best pitcher, 22-game winner Mike Hampton, until Game 3 in Houston.
Reynolds, however, regained his command from earlier in the season and allowed just seven singles. He threw one strike to the dangerous Chipper Jones while walking him twice and getting him to fly out to left on a 3-0 pitch. Reynolds had movement on his split-fingered fastball, but the best thing he did was throw fastball after fastball, while the Braves were looking for breaking balls.
"I don't know if I messed up my arm angle [the last six weeks] or what happened," Reynolds said. "I just stayed on the bullpen mound with Vern [Ruhle, the Astros' pitching coach] the last two days and worked on things. I had lost the sink on the sinker and the split wasn't sharp. The other day when I threw we found something. I saw the ball moving and felt really good about it."
This was the first Game 1 loss for the Braves in five first-round series. Atlanta was 12-1 in first-round series before today's defeat.
The victory was significant for the Astros because they have started the last two first-round series--against Atlanta and San Diego--with a loss. Houston was 1-6 in the postseason the last two seasons.
The Braves had tied the score at 1-1 in the bottom of the fifth on an RBI single by Gerald Williams. Then Bret Boone reached on an infield hit and Jones walked to load the bases and bring up Ryan Klesko, a .297 hitter in the regular season.
Reynolds struck out Klesko with a high fastball. It was the right-handed pitcher's only strikeout of the game.
"It's tough to see that time of day. . . . I didn't pick it up until late," Klesko said. "He threw a lot of fastballs to us and I guarantee if it's a night game when it's clear, he doesn't get away with that."
One pitch later, in the top of the sixth, Maddux threw a high change-up to Ward and it landed in the right field seats to give his team a 2-1 lead.
"I don't really know what the pitch was because he was throwing so well the whole game," said Ward, who started the season in Class AAA New Orleans. "It was just a pitch that was up."
Three Houston relievers made the lead stand up by retiring the Braves in order in the final three innings. Jones led off the bottom of the eighth of a 2-1 game and grounded out on the first pitch from Doug Henry. It was one of only two strikes Astros pitchers threw Jones, who had 45 home runs and batted .319 in the regular season.
"We're not going to let him beat us," Henry said. "That's the game plan. All that guy needs is one pitch."
Houston made sure it had enough runs with a four-run ninth. Ken Caminiti, who helped the San Diego Padres beat Houston and Atlanta in last year's NL playoffs, had the big blow, a three-run homer off Mike Remlinger, the Braves' best reliever in the regular season, going 10-1 with a 2.37 earned run average.
"This is huge," first baseman Jeff Bagwell said. "The last two years we lost the first game of the Division Series and our backs were up against a wall. This time we have some momentum. We've still got a long way to go. We're playing the Atlanta Braves. We can't get too caught up in one game."
CAPTION: Braves' Ryan Klesko throws bat after striking out with bases loaded in fifth inning of Atlanta's loss to Houston.