Originally created 10/10/01

Eighth-inning rally helps Braves snap streak



HOUSTON - With his first step out of the Enron Field batter's box and into postseason lore Tuesday afternoon, Chipper Jones' mind went blank.

This was a moment to be savored, his three-run home run in the eighth inning wiping out an Astros lead, but the All-Star third baseman was zoning out.

"I was numb to everything," Jones said after the Braves' 7-4 win in Game 1 of the best-of-five Division Series. "I was so jacked up, so ecstatic that I came through, I really didn't have a chance to think about anything."

In a season that could be measured in losses, the Braves ended a streak of seven straight postseason defeats with an offensive display that's been largely absent from their past Octobers.

Not since Game 3 of the 1999 World Series have the Braves collected 13 hits in a postseason game. Leadoff man Marcus Giles, Jones, Julio Franco, and Andruw Jones had two hits apiece, Brian Jordan had a hand in the first two runs, and pinch hitter Keith Lockhart triggered the eighth-inning rally with a double.

"In the last couple of weeks we've jelled," said Jordan, whose home run off Astros starter Wade Miller gave the Braves a 2-0 lead in the fourth. "We're having fun, something we haven't had all year. We're finally coming together and relaxing."

The ninth postseason home run of Chipper Jones' career came against Astros closer Billy Wagner, who had faced Jones nine times in his career, including the playoffs, and whiffed him seven times.

"It's always, 'Here it is, hit it,' with Billy," Jones said. "You pretty much know what you're gonna get. Until today, knowing didn't help much."

Said Wagner, "There's not much mystery what I'm going to throw when I come in."

With the score tied at 3 and two runners on base, Jones launched Wagner's first pitch, a 96 mph fastball, into the first row of the left field seats, a drive estimated at 336 feet.

"He's had his way with me for a long time," said Jones, who said he plans to go hunting with Wagner this winter. "I certainly wasn't bubbling over with confidence when I walked up to the plate. He throws so hard, and he has a little deception in his delivery. He's hard to pick up.

"I put myself in a good hitting position and got ready for a good fastball."

And the Braves put themselves in excellent position to extend the Astros' postseason futility. Jordan would say later that another Braves win - the seventh time in eight division series games they have whipped Houston - is in the back of the Astros' minds.

Astros manager Larry Dierker agreed in an abrupt postgame press conference.

Reporter: How hard will it be to regroup?

Dierker: Nobody knows.

Reporter: Are you concerned a loss like this will be pretty tough for them to take?

Dierker: Yeah, it is.

This one was a long time coming for the Astros, who were five outs away from beating Greg Maddux when Jones took Wagner deep.

"We've had that come up a couple of times lately," Dierker said. "Somebody has been absolutely helpless against a certain pitcher, we put the pitcher in, and the guy gets a hit. That's the kind of thing that happens."

Maddux allowed Brad Ausmus' game-tying, two-run home run in the fifth, then an unearned run in the sixth on Rey Sanchez's error, Jeff Bagwell's single, and Moises Alou's infield out.

Maddux, who remained winless in his past four division series starts, gave way to Rudy Seanez, who pitched a scoreless seventh. John Smoltz pitched the last two innings and came away with the second postseason save of his career, despite allowing Vinny Castilla's home run in the ninth.

"In a short series, good things happen when you win the first game," Smoltz said. "It puts you on the offensive, instead of approaching the next few games like Game 7. It doesn't guarantee you anything, but it gives you a better way to deal with things."

Reach Bill Zack at bzack30143@aol.com.