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Plenty to cheer about
10/12/2004 12:51 AM ET
ATLANTA -- No one believed in the Braves when the season started, and John Smoltz is one of the first to admit that he had his doubts.

Win the division for an unprecedented 13 straight seasons?

No way.

"There were two better teams in this division than us," Smoltz said in the Braves' clubhouse on Monday night.

All season, Atlanta was able to overcome long odds, loads of injuries and lots of critics. The Braves took the National League East convincingly, posting a 96-66 regular-season record.

Accomplishing so much when so little was expected cushioned the blow of being bounced out of the postseason.

A great Atlanta ride came to a screeching halt under a barrage of hits by Houston, which rolled to a 12-3 rout in Game 5 of the Division Series before a sold-out crowd of 54,068 at Turner Field.

Losing big, obviously, hurts. Once again, there will be no trip to the National League Championship Series. Instead, the Astros are heading to St. Louis to face the Cardinals with a World Series berth on the line.

"This was a better team than us," Smoltz said of the Astros. "Say what you will. Had we won this game, there wouldn't have been anybody who thought we could win two games against St. Louis. There is nothing you can do, but every individual will go back and find a way to get a little bit better and find a way to get it done next year."

Entering Spring Training, Smoltz admitted he didn't think the Braves were good enough to win the NL East. At the time, talk was the improved Phillies and 2003 World Series champion Marlins were regarded as the cream of the division. Best-case scenario, the lights-out closer thought, was being in the Wild Card chase with a couple of weeks remaining.

When the season settled in, however, it was the Braves -- as always -- ahead of the pack.

Game 5 struggles
After not going to a Game 5 in their first seven appearances in the NLDS, the Braves have gone to a Game 5 at home each of the last three years.
Year Opponent Game 5
2002 San Francisco Lost, 3-1
2003 Chicago Cubs Lost, 5-1
2004 Houston Lost, 12-3

Injuries, exhaustion and too much Houston offense were the main culprits for Atlanta's first-round exit.

"Obviously, we're all disappointed right now," said Chipper Jones, who played the entire series with a bruised right hand. "There is no way of avoiding that. But I think a week from now -- when we reflect back on our season -- as a unit, we played awfully well. I think most of the guys will be pretty proud of the way they handled themselves. I'm proud of them. Bobby's [manager Cox] proud of them. Atlanta should be, too."

Cox got the most out of a squad that lost Greg Maddux, Gary Sheffield and Javy Lopez. Veterans like Smoltz and Jones were mixed in with youngsters like Adam LaRoche and Johnny Estrada.

The grind of the season wears every roster thin. The Braves were beaten up and battered more than most. Three starters were laboring through ailments. Game 5 starter Jaret Wright fought on with two injured legs. Lefty Mike Hampton is about to undergo a left-knee scope to repair torn cartilage. Right-hander John Thomson went down for the season with a left oblique strain early in Game 3.

"The last five days, six days, seven days, the battle cry was, 'Find a way.' We almost did," Smoltz said. "Who knows what was going to happen if we won this game? Who was going to start? Who was going to be available? This was our chance to find out if another miracle was going to happen. To put it simply, I know because of the history, no one wants to talk about what we did."

What the Braves did was remarkable. A key trade brought in right fielder J.D. Drew, who had a career year with 31 homers, 93 RBIs and a .305 average.

Marcus Giles batted .311 and Estrada batted .314 and played 133 games.

"It's been a special season for us and for me," Drew said. "I had the opportunity to play in the postseason when nobody expected us to. It's been an honor."

Added Smoltz, who as usual, stepped up as a leader in the clubhouse, put the season into its proper context: "It's not often that you lose a series and you think about some of the good things that can happen for next year. A lot of young guys grew up. A lot of young guys have bright futures."

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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