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Braves prevail, but Astros confident
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10/07/2004 9:33 PM ET
Braves prevail, but Astros confident
Houston not feeling pressure heading into Game 3
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Rafael Furcal ensured Atlanta wouldn't go to Houston on the brink of elimination. (Ric Feld/AP)
• Furcal's game-winning homer:  56K | 350K

ATLANTA -- Six outs away from having a foot on their playoff throats, the Atlanta Braves let the Houston Astros know they are still alive and kicking.

"We couldn't afford to go to Houston down two [games to none]," Atlanta closer John Smoltz said after Rafael Furcal's two-run, walk-off homer in the 11th inning lifted the Braves to a 4-2 Game 2 victory Thursday, earning them a split of their first two 2004 National League Division Series games at Turner Field. "This was a big win for us to come back like we did. Now it's best of three."

When Furcal's shot off Dan Miceli soared into the pleasant Georgia night, Astro fans might have understandably been hit with a bit of deja vu. Most Houston fans remember the Astros three outs away from going up two games to one against the New York Mets in the NLCS in 1986, with Mike Scott due to pitch Game 4, only to see the tide turn when Lenny Dykstra hit a two-run, walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth inning at Shea Stadium.

This time, it was Furcal supplying the kick in the Astros' stomach, a feeling no doubt very familiar to long suffering Houston fans.

This time Houston was on the verge of going up 2-0 on the road, and since baseball began five-game postseason series in 1969, a team that has gone ahead two games to none on 42 occasions has won the series 34 times. Of the seven teams to lose the series after going up 2-0, only Oakland (2001 vs. the New York Yankees) won the first two on the road before failing to win the series.

Which is why Houston general manager Gerry Hunsicker called this game the most important in the history of the franchise. Had Houston won, the series would have been all but over with the Astros firmly in the driver's seat.

Furcal's blast decided one of the better playoff games in recent years, and now these two teams are looking at a dogfight that could go the distance.

Both teams have used their two best pitchers. Both teams used their closer for more than two innings in Game 2. Bobby Cox used every position player on the Atlanta bench. Phil Garner went to closer Brad Lidge in the seventh inning.

The mentality on both sides was one more usually seen in a final game rather than Game 2. As he has done for the last two months, Garner was managing to win today. Everything else was secondary. On the other side, Cox and the Braves pulled out all the stops, as well, to scratch out a win.

The Braves can claim momentum after an emotional victory -- plus a very tough loss for Houston -- but the Astros are going home to a park where they have won 18 consecutive games. And it would be a mistake to think either team is lacking for confidence.

"If anybody has any concerns around here, they should go ahead and give it up," Houston second baseman Jeff Kent said. "We won easily yesterday, and we played a great game today and came up short in extra innings. There's no pressure on us. I don't know about you, but I'm not worried, we're playing good baseball, and now we're going home."

Cox said the pressure is on both teams.

"Every game is pressure, every single game," Cox said. "We needed to win tonight to go into Houston at least even. I'm always the optimist, I suppose, but we have won three in a row a lot this year. There's no reason we couldn't have done that."

Thanks to Furcal's heroics, the Braves won't have to run the table to stay alive. As disappointing as the Astros were with the loss, they did take some solace in getting out of Atlanta with a split.

"Nobody thought it was going to be easy, they're still the Braves. I mean, there's a reason they led the league in ERA and have been to the playoff 13 times in a row," Bagwell said. "I can't say I'm happy with a split just because we had an opportunity we didn't cash in on, but then I am happy to get out of here with a split. That may not make sense, but you understand what I mean."

The implication was obvious. Houston was six outs away from going up two-zip, only to squander that opportunity. On a positive note, the Astros are going home needing only two wins to advance to the NLCS.

"We're still in good shape," Bagwell said. "We're in a must-win situation, but we've been in must-win situations before. We've been in them for the last six weeks, actually, so this is nothing new for us. We're used to them."

Jim Molony is a writer for MLB.com based in Houston. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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