Johnny Estrada, the Braves' lone All-Star, hit .314 and blossomed into one of the best young catchers in the game. Estrada has also earned good marks for his work handling pitchers and defensive skills. Houston's Brad Ausmus (.248 overall, .268 after the break) catches most games and Raul Chavez (.210 overall, .278 in September) starts when Roy Oswalt is on the mound. Neither compares offensively to Estrada but both are above average defensively. Ausmus, a two-time Gold Glover, has slipped slightly from his peak seasons in 2000-2001 but is still a valuable veteran.
FIRST BASEEDGE: ASTROS
Adam LaRoche and Julio Franco combined to hit .293 with 19 homers and 102 RBIs, including a .347 September by LaRoche. Both are adequate defensively. They don't have the range to get to everything, but they catch everything they can reach. The duo's seven errors were one more than Houston first baseman Jeff Bagwell made. Bagwell's chronic shoulder condition means he cannot throw well and other teams have occasionally exploited this situation. Bagwell had a down year offensively -- by his usual standards -- but he is still dangerous and hit .291 against right-handers this year.
SECOND BASEEDGE: BRAVES
Atlanta's Marcus Giles played in only 102 games due to injury but hit .311 with eight homers, 48 RBIs and 17 stolen bases. One of the Atlanta table setters, his .378 on-base percentage was the second-highest on the team. Giles has good range and speed and an average arm. Houston's Jeff Kent doesn't move as well as he once did but makes up for it with one of the more potent bats around. The all-time leading home run hitter among second basemen has a track record for producing in the clutch and has been instrumental in Houston's second-half run.
THIRD BASEEDGE: BRAVES
Chipper Jones' batting average took a tumble but he still hit 30 homers and drove in 96 runs. Hitting .214 at the break, the switch-hitter had a monster August before tailing off in September. The off year by Jones was still more productive than the tag-team third base effort Houston received from the lefty-hitting Mike Lamb and the right-handed hitting Morgan Ensberg. Lamb's a streaky hitter capable of carrying a team when he's hot, but he's below average defensively. Ensberg is better with the leather, but no Gold Glover, and his offensive production (.275, 10 HRs, 66 RBIs) slipped from last year.
Atlanta's Rafael Furcal committed 24 errors, his fewest for a full season since his rookie year of 2000, but his total chances were down by nearly 150. Even so, he's still very good defensively, runs well and has some pop (.279, 43 extra-base hits, including 14 homers). Houston's best defensive player is Adam Everett, but he was just activated from a wrist injury and won't make the playoff roster. Veteran Jose Vizcaino has filled in admirably and has ample postseason experience, but he's a distinct drop-off defensively from Everett.
LEFT FIELDEDGE: ASTROS
Craig Biggio has been one of the better leadoff men in the league this year, though clearly out of position in left field. Doesn't run as well as he did five years ago, but Biggio still cranked out 47 doubles and a team-high 178 hits. Biggio has struggled at the plate in previous postseason appearances, especially against Atlanta. Rookie Charles Thomas, if healthy, is an exciting player who has given a boost to the Atlanta offense. Thomas, who has never appeared in the playoffs, has average speed and is well below the defensive standard set by the other two starters in the Atlanta outfield.
CENTER FIELDEDGE: ASTROS
Two of the best center fielders in baseball will go at it in this series. Andruw Jones, winner of six consecutive Gold Gloves, and Houston's five-tool talent Carlos Beltran, who fell two homers shy of becoming the fourth 40-homer, 40-steal man in baseball history. Beltran is an electrifying player who can turn a game around with his bat, his glove or his arm. Jones and Beltran put up similar numbers for average, homers and RBIs, but Jones didn't steal much while Beltran has the best stolen base percentage in Major League history among players with at least 100 thefts.
RIGHT FIELDEDGE: BRAVES
Another tough call. J.D. Drew stayed healthy and put up an MVP-caliber year and was a key reason the Braves were able to win their 13th consecutive division title. Drew hits for power and average and runs well and also has a plus arm. Houston's Lance Berkman had similar offensive numbers and even topped Drew in average and RBIs. Berkman got off to a slow start before finishing strong. Berkman, however, is not on the same defensive par with Drew, although Berkman is certainly no slouch with the glove.
Atlanta's relievers are talented, experienced and perform their roles very well. With arms like Chris Reitsma, Antonio Alfonseca, Juan Cruz, Kevin Gryboski and Tom Martin, Atlanta manager Bobby Cox has plenty of middle-inning options and one of the best closers in the game in John Smoltz. Houston's bullpen has been a concern area all year, but pitched well in the stretch run through the combined efforts of Dan Miceli, Chad Qualls, Chad Harville and Russ Springer. Those four, and lefty Mike Gallo, helped set things up for strikeout record-holder Brad Lidge in the closer's role.
Atlanta's Eli Marrero is a versatile player who can fill in at several positions and provide some offense in a pinch. Mark DeRosa's had an off year but is capable of contributing a big night, and whoever isn't starting at first gives Cox another quality bat to use off the bench. Houston manager Phil Garner has a similar option with his third base tandem. Jason Lane has power and can play all three outfield positions and Orlando Palmeiro was among the top pinch-hitters in the league and was a member of the 2002 World Champion Anaheim Angels.
Bobby Cox has done a remarkable job with a team many predicted would not make the playoffs for the first time since 1990. Cox gets the most out of his troops and usually finds a way to get the matchups in his favor. Houston's Phil Garner made all the right moves down the stretch and has lit a fire under a team that seemed to be going nowhere before he arrived. Garner has the magic touch right now but Cox has been doing it far longer.
The Braves weren't supposed to be here, but neither were the Astros. Atlanta is a superb team with excellent pitching and a great offense, but the Astros are on a roll of historic proportions. If any underdog has the earmarks of being this year's Florida Marlins, a team that got hot down the stretch and rode a Wild Card berth to an improbable World Series crown, it's these surprising Astros.
Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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