They have two 20-game winners, an MVP candidate, a Cy Young Award hopeful and the league's top reliever, yet for all of their bang, the Houston Astros' season went out with a whimper.
The Astros closed out their 35th and final campaign at the Astrodome today with a 7-5 loss to the Atlanta Braves in Game 4 of the National League first-round playoff series, which the Braves won, 3-1.
Houston's season ended the same way the previous 34 have--in disappointment--but this one might have set a standard in terms of failed expectations by the Houston franchise.
"The division title we won this year was more gratifying because of all of the things we overcame to win it," Houston Manager Larry Dierker said. "Conversely, the way this series turned around on us after we won the first game really makes this tough to swallow."
The Astros entered the first-round playoff series confident they would, for the first time in franchise history, win a postseason series. But a three-game losing streak, punctuated by today's loss to John Smoltz and the Braves before 48,553, closed the curtain on their season.
Smoltz held the Astros scoreless for six innings to claim the series-clinching victory, just as he did in the 1997 first-round series against Houston. Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell once again made little impact in the postseason, managing just two singles apiece, matching their production of last year's series loss to San Diego.
"If you want to say we choked you're entitled to your opinion, but the fact is we played as hard as we could and we lost," Bagwell said. "This was tough. We got beat by a good team, but we had a chance to win and we didn't."
The Braves, who handed the Astros their most disappointing loss of the season 24 hours earlier in a 5-3, 12-inning victory, wasted little time setting the tone today. Gerald Williams sent the first pitch into left field for a double. One out later, Williams scored the game's first run on a sacrifice fly by Chipper Jones.
"We wanted to get on [Houston starter Shane] Reynolds right away because he can be tough, especially if he gets in a groove," Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox said. "We didn't want him settling into a rhythm like he did in the first game."
Smoltz, who finished with two hits, doubled and scored on a single by Bret Boone to give the Braves a 2-0 lead in the third inning. The Astros had only two base runners make it as far as second base during the first six innings against the right-hander.
"We heard where he wasn't throwing as hard because his arm was down here [at three-quarters] instead of up here [over the top]," Astros third baseman Ken Caminiti said. "So much for that. He was bringing it up there 95-96 miles an hour and hitting corners. Anybody that thinks Smoltz doesn't have as good stuff as he did before needs to stand in [the batter's box] and get their mind changed."
The Astros whittled away at Atlanta's lead on a home run by Tony Eusebio in the seventh and a three-run shot to center by Caminiti in the eighth. Cox went to his bullpen and, after a leadoff walk, John Rocker retired the next four batters he faced to pick up the save.
"Rocker was dominating," Smoltz said. "I don't know that I've ever seen anybody come in and shut a team down in the situations he's faced these last two games."
Rocker got Caminiti on a fly ball to deep center to end the game.
"I missed it, but just barely," Caminiti said.
For the third year in a row, so did the Astros.