ATLANTA - When the Atlanta Braves look at the Houston Astros, they see a reflection of themselves.
They see a team that relies on strong starting pitching and defense. They see a lineup with an MVP candidate and a solid supporting cast. They see a player's manager who has turned an underachieving team into a winner.
The biggest difference between the two teams opening the National League Division Series this afternoon at Turner Field is this: The Braves have more of everything. More pitching, more hitting, better defense, more postseason experience.
"I'd say we're somewhat similar," said Tom Glavine, the Game 2 starter. "We rely heavily on pitching and defense like they do. I think we have a little more power, but as far as the formula for success, we're pretty similar."
While the Astros, playing in the postseason for the first time since 1986, were fortunate to be playing in the weak N.L. Central, where they only had to hold off the upstart Pirates to win the division, their pitching is good enough to surprise an overconfident team in a short series.
"I'll be disappointed if we don't beat the Braves," Astros manager Larry Dierker said. "I understand we're the underdog and they have a great team. It's not going to ruin my life if we don't win, but I'll be disappointed."
In Darryl Kile, the Game 1 starter, the Astros have one of the league's best right-handers, a pitcher who will probably finish fourth or fifth in the Cy Young voting. Kile tied Greg Maddux, this afternoon's mound opponent, for the league's second-most wins with 19 and finished third with a 2.57 ERA. He also was among league leaders in several other categories, including starts (34), complete games (6) and innings pitched (255 2/3).
"Kile turned the corner a couple of years ago and he put it all together this year," Maddux said.
Behind Kile is left-hander Mike Hampton, the Game 2 starter, who is 15-10 with a 3.83 ERA, Game 3 starter Shane Reynolds, 9-10 with a 4.23 ERA, and right-hander Chris Holt, 8-12 and 3.52 ERA.
In the bullpen, young Billy Wagner, a hard-throwing left-hander, came this close to being named to the All-Star team by Braves manager Bobby Cox. That's how impressed Cox was with Wagner, who collected 23 saves and some Mark Wohlers-type strikeout numbers. In 66 1/3 innings, he struck out 106, while issuing 30 walks, numbers that make any team leery of facing him in the ninth inning.
While Houston's lineup produced average numbers this season, first baseman Jeff Bagwell put together an MVP season. He became the Astros' first 30-30 player with 43 homers, 31 steals and 135 RBI, and his importance to the team was incalculable. Remove Bagwell from the lineup and the Pirates would have won the division, which is essentially the definition of an MVP.
Bagwell didn't shoulder the whole load. Shifted to leadoff, second baseman Craig Biggio put together another All-Star season, hitting .309 with 22 homers and a career-high 81 RBI. He is the spark that sets the Astros in motion. Biggio swiped a career-high 47 bases and scored 146 runs, thus accounting for over 200 of the Astros 700-plus runs.
"Obviously their lineup is built around those two guys," Maddux said. "But if you make good pitches you get good hitters out."
There are two other hitters the Braves have to approach carefully. Derek Bell is a streaky hitter who strikes out a lot and occasionally hits the ball a country mile. A pesky, left-handed hitter, Luis Gonzalez hit in the cleanup hole behind Bagwell for a portion of the season, but he's better off farther down the lineup.
Like the Braves, the Astros' offense sputtered occasionally, producing the league's fifth-most runs, only 14 less than Atlanta's lineup. Their pitching staff was third in the league with a 3.66 ERA and the bullpen collected 37 saves, matching the Braves' relief corps.
Where the two teams part company is in the speed department. With Kenny Lofton, the Braves were supposed to run wild on the bases this season. Although they surpassed last year's stolen base total, their 108 steals are 63 less than Houston's total.
Little wonder Braves closer Mark Wohlers chose Monday afternoon to polish his pickoff move to first base.
"One thing about this club, and it's reflected in our record, we don't take anything for granted," Wohlers said.
Paying attention to details is reflected in both teams.
Leadoff batter Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell are the keys to the Houston offense, but they face four straight superb pitchers. Here is how they have fared against the Braves top four pitchers this season and in their career:
Biggio vs. Glavine 1997 2-12 .167; career 16-66 .242.
Biggio vs. Maddux 1997 3-7 .429; career 19-76 .250
Biggio vs. Neagle 1997 1-7 .143; career 4-23 .174
Biggio vs. Smoltz 1997 3-11 .273; career 21-88 .239
Bagwell vs. Glavine 1997 1-8 .125; career 14-42 .333
Bagwell vs. Maddux 1997 2-6 /.333r. career 13-53 .245
Bagwell vs. Neagle 1997 2-6 .333; career 7-25 .280
Bagwell vs. Smoltz 1997 3-9 .333; career 20-67 .299
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