Originally created 04/02/97

Houston shackles Atlanta



HOUSTON - Uh-oh, the Atlanta Braves are already a game out and the season has barely begun.

At this rate, the race will be over by the end of next week.

The Braves, who had not lost on opening day since 1991, saw that streak end in rather feeble fashion Tuesday night.

Overpowered by a perfect pitcher, the Braves got the season off on the wrong foot, 2-1 losers to the Astros before a crowd of 44,618 fans at the Astrodome, the largest opening day crowd in the history of the Houston franchise.

It was a remarkable performance by Astros right-hander Shane Reynolds that did in the Braves. He outpitched Cy Young winner John Smoltz, working eight innings and allowing seven hits and striking out seven, to push his career record against Atlanta to 4-0.

It was an inauspicious debut for leadoff man Kenny Lofton. He struck out three times and was thrown out stealing following his only hit. However, his glove sparkled. He made one excellent catch while banging into the center field wall and made an outstanding grab of Luis Gonzalez's drive in the seventh, climbing the wall to take away a double.

Smoltz, who received great support from Atlanta's offense last year, saw the bats fall silent. On the few occasions that the Braves threatened, they couldn't deliver a clutch hit.

Atlanta's only run came off Chipper Jones' bat. The third baseman, who didn't hit his first homer last year until April 7 and finished with a career-high 30, unloaded a pitch from Reynolds over the center field wall to tie the game in the third.

It didn't remain tied for long.

Brad Ausmus looped a single into right field to start things in the bottom of the inning and eventually scored on Pat Listach's sacrifice fly.

Reynolds, who beat Smoltz in his only start against the Braves last season, didn't make many other mistakes. And, when he did, the defense helped him.

Lofton started the third with a single but was thrown out stealing by a great throw from Ausmus. Reynolds started the game with a couple of strikeouts, began throwing sinkers and the Braves beat the ball into the turf.

In eight innings, Houston's right-hander got 12 ground ball outs and allowed only five men to advance past first base.

The Braves threatened in the fourth with a pair of men on base, but Smoltz grounded out, then another opportunity passed in the sixth. With a pair of men on base, third baseman Bill Spiers backhanded Jeff Blauser's grounder and turned it into the last out, pushing Atlanta's total to seven men stranded.

Smoltz was almost as dominating. He gave up a first-inning run when Craig Biggio singled, went to third on Listach's hit-and-run single and scored on Jeff Bagwell's grounder. A 2-1 lead arrived off Listach's bat in the third and that was it for the Astros' offense until the seventh.

Smoltz, who led the majors in strikeouts last season, didn't dominate with strikeouts but was overpowering nonetheless. The Astros didn't hit many balls had and they collected only five hits, all singles, in six innings.

In the seventh, Lofton robbed Gonzalez of a double before Spiers sent a double bouncing against the right field wall and Bob Abreu singled. Following a visit to the mound by pitching coach Leo Mazzone, Smoltz coaxed an inning-ending double play grounder from Ausmus to keep it 2-1.