Originally created 10/07/04

Astros diehards travel for win



ATLANTA - Four of them in a pickup truck covered 818.4 miles in just 12 hours, parking in the Green Lot across from Turner Field and cracking open the first Lone Star beer on their tailgate at 7 a.m.

With a Bush-Cheney placard in the front window and a Texas flag waving off the back, they arrived with an arrogance that might seem a little out-of-place for Houston Astros fans.

"No question we're the favorites," said Alex Skandalis, wearing a Roger Clemens jersey and a cowboy hat.

"We're going to steamroll Atlanta, win a tight series with St. Louis and beat anyone from the American League," added Michael Lugo, wearing an old-school orange Astros cap.

Has it gotten to the point when even the Astros can talk smack about the 13-time division winner Atlanta Braves? The same Astros who have never won a single postseason series in seven prior attempts? The same Astros who are 2-12 in Division Series games? The same Astros who were 1-9 against the Braves in the playoffs?

Apparently it has.

None of these traveling huckleberries is old enough to remember when the Astros were even competitive in a postseason series (1980 and '86). Yet they came to Georgia supremely confident in their three aces and wild-card status.

"We owe the Braves a whole bunch," Chris Ross said.

Shut out of ticket sales for Games 3 and 4 in Minute Maid Park - which sold out in only a few hours - the four 20-somethings piled in their pickup and made a bee-line for Atlanta, where, to the unending disgrace of this region, plenty of good seats remained. About 10,000 or so.

"That's pretty pathetic," Skandalis said of the local apathy. "Atlanta is a lousy sports town."

A 9-3 Game 1 loss at home against the hottest

team in baseball was another lousy start for a team supposedly reenergized by a younger roster with shorter memories.

Oh, the opportunities the Braves blew Wednesday afternoon. They had the Rocket ready to malfunction, but it was the Braves who proved to be duds.

"We had our chances," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "One hit in a couple of situations turns that game right around. We just didn't get that one hit."

Clemens dug himself out of the crater Braves starter Jaret Wright dug for him on the mound and several more he dug with the Braves hitters - bases loaded in the first and third and runners at second and third with one out in the second. Clemens persevered to pitch seven innings and yield three runs before leaving with the outcome comfortably in hand.

"I had to will my way through that game," said Clemens. "Sometimes it takes more than talent and a 95 mph fastball."

Clemens, who elected to play this season for his hometown Astros instead of start the countdown clock toward his Hall of Fame induction, was to postseason series openers what the Astros have been to postseasons period - winless. In six prior Game 1s, Clemens was 0-3. Coming off a stomach virus on Sunday that threw him off his routine, the 42-year-old six-time Cy Young winner appeared vulnerable.

"If you were ever going to get (Clemens) it would have been today," said Cox. "He wasn't on his A-game."

But he was in A-town. Atlanta is the place these days to come heal any postseason woes. Barry Bonds got off the postseason schnied with a division series win in 2002. The Cubs busted a 95-year playoff losing streak with its division series win in 2003.

Now that Clemens has an opening win, can another sweep be too far behind with the NL's only 20-game winner, Roy Oswalt, trying to secure a 2-0 lead heading home to Houston?

At this rate, Braves shortstop Rafael Furcal might be starting his immediately-following-the-season 49-day incarceration by next week instead of next month. And the two-time DUI offender won't have to worry about the no-celebratory-champagne stipulations.

"It's hard for me," said Furcal when he arrived from the courthouse to Turner Field. "I've never been in jail that long. Everybody worries about jail."

The Braves, even a scrappy bunch like this team, have so much to worry about again in what has become a postseason prison. They are certainly a different team than the ones that rolled over the Astros not long ago and rolled over and played dead the last couple of postseasons.

Unfortunately for Atlanta, these Houston Astros are a lot different as well. In Game 1 they scored more runs than they've ever scored in 28 previous postseason games, and they look primed to break out of their own postseason hell.

"This is a different era, different time, different supporting cast," Astros manager Phil Garner said.

"I don't think history of not having done anything will apply in our case. I think we're beyond that."

Unless they step up today, the Braves might not be able to say the same thing. And the 818.4 miles to Houston might seem like a longer haul on a chartered plane than a pickup truck.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.