HOUSTON -- In the words of Yogi Berra, it's deja vu all over again.
Braves-Astros. Astros-Braves. We've seen this before, more than once.
When the Braves open the best-of-five Division Series at Enron Field this afternoon, it will be the third time in five years they have faced the Astros for a chance to advance to the league championship series.
The Braves won three games to none in 1997, and took three of four in 1999.
But following last year's sweep at the hands of the Cardinals, and this year's rollercoaster ride to the NL East title, the Braves are no longer regarded as the league's royalty. Rather, they are off the radar screen, dismissed as a fading giant, long in the tooth, and short on talent.
"We've been the hunted so long, it will be nice to go into a series as the hunter," said third baseman Chipper Jones, who led the NL with a .349 batting average on the road. "Hopefully we'll respond well to it. I don't think anybody is picking us to do much in the playoffs. We're just one of the teams that will kind of sneak in the back door, go in relatively unnoticed, and sneak up on some people."
Said manager Bobby Cox, "I'm sure the people who seed the teams would have us in the middle, or lower. But I wouldn't."
It's Greg Maddux, who finished with his most losses (11) since 1996, against 16-game winner Wade Miller in Game 1. Maddux hasn't won since Aug. 22; Miller, the second-year right-hander who pitched 212 innings this season, will work on three days rest for the first time in his career.
"I'm going to try and go out there with the attitude that if I can hold them down to one or two runs at the most, I think we have a good chance," said Miller, who didn't face the Braves this season, but was 1-1 with a 4.91 ERA in two games against them last year. "I think with the way our offense is going, if we can get a few runs off them, it will get me in a position where I can go out and put zeroes up."
This is probably the best Astros team the Braves have faced in the postseason. Their 93 wins tied with the Cardinals for the league's most, and their 49-32 road record was the league's best. More ominously for the Braves, the Astros scored 847 runs, 118 more than Atlanta's offense, posted significantly better slugging and on-base percentages, yet they displayed enough patience to draw 581 walks, the league's fourth-best total.
"I think this team will play well," Astros manager Larry Dierker said. "It has a veteran quality to it. I think a lot of us feel maybe a little more centered and a little bit more focused this time because the hoopla and the hype surrounding the playoffs is familiar to a lot of the guys. So, I think it will be easier for them just to concentrate on playing baseball, rather than trying to do too much or get too worried if we lose a game."
The Astros have five hitters -- Jeff Bagwell, Moises Alou, Lance Berkman, Richard Hidalgo, and Vinny Castilla -- who knocked in 80 or more runs. Bagwell finished with 39 home runs and 130 RBI, Berkman, in his first full season in the major leagues, batted .331, hit 34 home runs and drove in 126 runs, Alou also batted .331 and had 108 RBI, and Castilla, released by the Rockies in May, drove in 82 runs in 122 games.
"I say to myself, I've got to pitch a good game or they could score 10 runs," said Tom Glavine, who will start Wednesday's Game 2.
"I compare their lineup to the Rockies lineup of the mid-90s," Jones said. "Those guys can just murder you at any time. They don't give you an opportunity to take a deep breath."
The Braves have an edge with their Big Three of Maddux, Glavine, and John Burkett, who collectively have pitched in 55 postseason games. Miller, Dave Mlicki, and Shane Reynolds, the Astros top three starters, have worked in just four playoff games, all by Reynolds. Roy Oswalt, Houston's astonishing rookie, tested his sore groin Monday and was cleared to start Game 4.
Dierker, making a preemptive strike Monday to influence the umpires, said, "I think probably the thing that will determine whether we are able to hit those guys or not will be the size of the strike zone. If those guys are getting the strikes off the edge of the plate, or if you have a relatively large strike zone, they can probably work the corners a little bit better than some of our pitchers.
"However, if you had a smaller strike zone and you were forced to throw the ball in there, I think that Wade Miller's got a little bit livelier stuff."
The Braves left pitchers Kevin Millwood and Jose Cabrera, catcher Eddie Perez, and infielder Jesse Garcia off their roster for the division series. Shortstop Mark DeRosa and first baseman Wes Helms were included, along with pitcher Jason Marquis, who will work as a long reliever and pinch runner.
Millwood, who will be the fourth starter if the Braves advance to the NLCS, will head to the Instructional League in Orlando, Fla., today and make a start Wednesday. He will rejoin the team Friday.
"(Bobby Cox) didn't think coming out of the bullpen would help me get ready for the second round," Millwood said.
After watching Eddie Perez struggle to throw Sunday, Cox decided to go with two catchers -- Paul Bako and rookie Steve Torrealba -- and use B.J. Surhoff as the emergency catcher.
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.
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