Astros go small, get big win
Club's rap was offensively challenged, but not in Game 1
ATLANTA -- They are still the Killer B's, but now the Houston Astros swarm opponents with small stings instead of home runs.
Houston's much-maligned offense showed Atlanta that its latest "B-ball" attack can be just as efficient as last year's in a 10-5 rout of the Braves on Wednesday in Game 1 of the National League Division Series at Turner Field.
Those of us who watch this team regularly know that these Astros, despite a dearth of power compared to other playoff teams, are as adept at small ball as any team in baseball. When they are selective at the plate, they are at their most dangerous and are capable of putting up crooked numbers even when they aren't hitting home runs.
They underscored that fact with a textbook demonstration on how to win when the power is out.
"The one thing we've been forced to do a lot of this year is scratch out runs and win a lot of close games," Houston GM Tim Purpura said. "Well, guess what? That's what the playoffs usually are, close games where you have to scratch out runs any way you can."
In Game 1 here last year, the Astros banged out four homers to back Roger Clemens in a 9-3 victory. This time, the Astros managed 11 hits in support of Andy Pettitte, but none left the ballpark. And with the exception of three doubles, all were singles.
These Astros didn't need the dingers.
They scratched, and then scratched some more. By the time they were done scratching out runs, the Braves had been buried under a flurry of singles and walks.
The Astros bunted -- the four sacrifice bunts were one shy of the all-time record, and hasn't happened in a postseason game since 1974. They also didn't get cheated at the plate -- nine walks -- and took the extra base whenever possible, including Craig Biggio's surprise double in the third. Offensively and defensively, the Astros did not make many mistakes and once again manager Phil Garner seemed to push all the right buttons.
The Astros played small ball like they invented it, and just about everybody in the Houston hive got in on the fun.
Biggio contributed a pair of hits and a sacrifice fly and scored three runs. Pinch-hitter Jeff Bagwell delivered a clutch RBI single in a five-run eighth. Morgan Ensberg tied a franchise record set by Carlos Beltran last year with five RBIs.
Add it all up and you had a relentless station-to-station attack that steadily wore down Atlanta starter Tim Hudson and the Atlanta bullpen while Pettitte, NL Pitcher of the Month for September, continued his string of mastery with yet another quality start. Pettitte went seven and allowed just three runs.
"Last year's lineup was great, but this year's lineup ain't so bad either," Biggio said. "These guys have been through a lot, but everybody here knows what they need to do and today everybody contributed and did a nice job. We created some opportunities and we took advantage of those opportunities, and when you do that and get good pitching, you're going to win more than you lose."
You had an inkling it might be Houston's game when Willy Taveras drew only his second walk in his last 35 plate appearances and Brad Ausmus managed to drive a ball over center fielder Andruw Jones' head.
Biggio got things going with a leadoff single, and from then on the Astros kept traffic on the basepaths. They were only retired in order twice and scored in five different innings, hardly what you'd expect from a team that was shut out 17 times this season.
"We had five or six guys that had 20-plus homers last year," Biggio said. "It's a little bit different. But that's not to say we don't have any power in this year's lineup. But we have to manufacture things a little bit differently. I think today you saw a big part of that."
The Astros foiled another typical tactic many opponents used against them this season. The Braves walked Lance Berkman three times and Ensberg made them pay. The Braves, like a lot of opponents in recent weeks, found out Houston's limited power isn't the factor many observers believe it to be.
"We can hit the ball out of the ballpark, but I think playing the game where you give yourself a lot of chances with runners in scoring position is key for us," Berkman said.
Berkman said it helps that the Astros understand their roles and aren't shy about giving up at-bats to move runners over. These guys don't waste at-bats, but they are more than willing to give them up if it will move a runner up a base.
"We believe in each other," Bagwell said. "This is a heck of a team that came a long way to get here. We're not usually going to outslug teams, we're going to need to do the little things to score runs. Today, we got some real big hits, some two-out hits, that was huge for us."
The win gives Houston the home-field advantage in this best-of-five series with seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens ready to go in Game 2.
That could be very big for this small-ball team.
Jim Molony is a writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.