Braves 7, Astros 1
In the same year a heralded pitching prospect with a powerful right arm made his major league debut with the Boston Red Sox, a little boy was born in Athens, Ga. The son of a baseball coach, Brian McCann had the sport in his blood and flourished with a bat and a catcher's mitt. This season, less than four months after his 21st birthday, he made his big league debut for the Atlanta Braves.
McCann performed well in his rookie season and when Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox made out his starting lineup for Game 2 of the National League Division Series, McCann's name was on it. In the second inning Thursday night, with two men on base for his first postseason at-bat, McCann looked out to the mound to see Roger Clemens, that same prospect whose big league debut came a few months after McCann was born.
"The history behind him is greater than any pitcher I've faced," said McCann after powering the Braves to a 7-1 victory Thursday night. "You don't expect to hit a home run against a guy like that."
On an 0-2 pitch, McCann shattered his expectations, launching a line drive over the right field wall for a three-run home run, the decisive blow in the Braves' win that evened this series at a game apiece. Game 3 is Saturday in Houston.
It was a mismatch for sure, a rookie against a future Hall of Famer, a part-time catcher against perhaps the best pitcher in the history of the game.
"It's Roger Clemens against a 21-year-old kid he never saw before," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. "Logic says Roger has the upper hand in that matchup."
The rookie rushed around the bases, a moment he does not remember anymore, and then celebrated with his teammates at home plate. After the game, while the Braves congratulated each other, McCann told Jones, "I blacked out from the second inning on."
The Turner Field crowd of 46,181 was in full-throated roar following the homer. They demanded a curtain call. The rookie obliged. "I wanted that to last forever," McCann said.
"It's the greatest moment I've had on a baseball field. Everything just felt right."
McCann's heroics in no small part forced the spotlight away from what had been expected to be one of this postseason's best pitching matchups: Clemens vs. Braves ace John Smoltz. Both pitchers are among the best of their generation. But Thursday night, only one lived up to his billing, and he was pitching for the home team.
Thursday was Smoltz's first postseason start since October 27, 1999 when he was bested by Clemens and the New York Yankees in Game 4 of the World Series. That victory earned Clemens his first World Series ring.
Smoltz missed the next season after having reconstructive elbow surgery during spring training. The Braves decided it was best for Smoltz to become the team's new closer the following season to work his elbow back into shape. He had done well at that task, but deep inside Smoltz ached to be a starter again and more so ached to start a postseason game. His chance finally came on Thursday.
"I'm certainly proud," Smoltz said. "For tonight it sure feels good. I had some rough pitches but some good pitches."
Smoltz allowed a run in the first inning, on a single by Jason Lane, but was virtually untouchable after that. Only one Houston runner reached second base after the first inning and Smoltz had five strikeouts in his seven innings to earn his record 15th win in the postseason.
"When Brian threw that home run, boy it changed the whole game," Smoltz said. "That home run was pretty much the adrenaline boost I need to get through the game."
Clemens was taken out after just five innings and 92 pitches, perhaps none bigger than the one McCann hit for a home run.
"The home run is what killed us," Clemens said. "You can't afford to make that mistake there. A fastball down and away that cut back over the zone. It's a very hittable pitch. The pitcher is on deck. Guys on this level, whether he's 21 or 41, are going to hit that. He took advantage of it."