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NLDS forecast: Astros vs. Braves
10/04/2004 3:18 AM ET
Reasons the Astros will win:

1. The Astros are the hottest team in baseball, and going with a three-man rotation will enable the Astros to get three starts for Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt, negating concerns about the rest of the Houston rotation.

2. The Killer B's (Craig Biggio, Carlos Beltran, Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman) and Jeff Kent have gotten hot at the right time for this offense to continue rolling into October.

3. The Astros have never won a postseason series and are long overdue for that to happen. Unlike their last two playoff appearances, this time the Astros are underdogs and with a core group of veterans who may be getting their last shot at a World Series, they are the sentimental choice to continue their amazing run.

Achilles' Heel: The Astros are suspect in the rotation after Clemens and Oswalt, and their middle relief doesn't scare anybody. Manager Phil Garner has skillfully minimized the pitching shortcomings by going to the bullpen early and often in September, but he won't have an expanded roster to continue that tactic in the playoffs. If the starters get in trouble it could snowball for Houston quickly.

Key showdowns:

1. Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio vs. Atlanta pitching. Both are hitting well under .200 in postseason play, with the Braves ('97, '98 and 2001) their key nemesis. As these two go, so go the Astros, and so it is imperative that they have good series if the Astros are going to advance.

2. Brad Lidge vs. Braves' bombers. Lidge has been outstanding, but the Houston closer will be making his first playoff appearance and as their late-inning failures have cost the Astros dearly against Atlanta in past Octobers (see Dotel, Octavio), how well Lidge holds up will be key.

3. Roger Clemens vs. Atlanta offense. If the Astros are going to advance they will likely need two wins from The Rocket, and winning the opener would put Houston in position to win the series at home. Conversely, if Clemens struggles it could put Houston in a hole right off the bat and give Atlanta valuable momentum for the short series.

Darkhorse: Mike Lamb. Though he has struggled lately and ended the season on a 1-for-13 slide, the lefty-hitting Lamb was a force during the Astros' 12-game winning streak. During one four-game stretch in September, Lamb was 11-for-17 with three homers and 13 RBIs. A textbook streak hitter, look out if he gets hot.

Reasons the Braves will win:

1. The Braves lead the league in pitching and as everyone knows, pitching usually prevails in the playoffs. The Atlanta staff is talented and deep, and if everyone is healthy it will be more than a match for Houston's offense.

2. The Braves are 3-0 vs. Houston in playoff series and have won nine of 10 playoff games against the Astros. The teams have changed of course, but many of the regulars on both teams are still there and Bobby Cox is still running the Braves.

3. Atlanta's offense will exploit the weaknesses on the Houston pitching staff and the Astros, 25-46 when the opponent scores first, are not a good come-from-behind team.

Achilles' Heel: Strikeouts. The Braves whiff quite a bit -- only Colorado, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Mets struck out more among NL teams -- and Houston has three of the better strikeout pitchers in the league in Oswalt, Clemens and Lidge. The Braves will try to work pitch counts to get into the Houston bullpen quickly, but they must guard against striking out too often, especially with runners on base.

Key showdowns:

1. J.D. Drew vs. Houston's right-handers. The Astros will likely have only one left-hander on the playoff roster -- reliever Mike Gallo -- and how well the lefty-swinging Drew produces against Houston's right-handers will have a bearing on the Astros' strategy and ultimately the outcome of this series.

2. Rafael Furcal and Marcus Giles vs. Houston's catchers. In a close series Atlanta's rabbits could be the difference if they are able to run on Houston's two-time Gold Glove catcher Brad Ausmus and backup Raul Chavez.

3. Johnny and the Joneses vs. the Astros' pitching staff. The heart of the order -- Chipper Jones, Johnny Estrada and Andruw Jones -- will be counted on to counteract Houston's sluggers in a matchup of two of the better offenses in the league.

Darkhorse: Eli Marrero. He often gummed up the works for Houston when he was a St. Louis Cardinal and has a knack for coming up with the big play or big hit in crucial situations. Both teams have fine benches, but Marrero's presence gives Atlanta an edge here.

Prediction: Braves, in five games.

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