Big challenge facing Braves


Why the Braves could win: For the first time in 12 years, few figured they would be here; that change in expectation might help them relax. In previous years, they've been built for the regular season with tremendous depth in starting pitching -- they're more well-rounded now. Their outfield defense with Charles Thomas, Andruw Jones and J.D. Drew is fabulous. They have a Hall of Fame manager in Bobby Cox. And they have John Smoltz.

Why the Astros could win: They are the hottest team in the league, having won 37 of their last 47 overall, and 18 straight at home. They have the hottest closer in the game in Brad Lidge. They have two outstanding starting pitchers in Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens, who also is the best story of the postseason. They are swinging the bat as well as they have all year.

Late Innings: The Braves have the third-best bullpen ERA (3.59) in the league. Smoltz is tremendous, his postseason experience is invaluable and his leadership has helped keep this team together. Smoltz's support staff -- Antonio Alfonseca, Kevin Gryboski, Tom Martin, Juan Cruz and Chris Reitsma -- has been effective. Lidge has been phenomenally good -- "if he'd been our closer all year,'' said Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker, "he'd be a Cy Young candidate.'' Lidge has struck out 157, the most in NL history by a reliever. No one can hit his slider. The rest of the bullpen is anonymous, but lately, has been pretty good. And durable. Manager Phil Garner will go to his pen in the third inning if he doesn't like the look of any starter other than Oswalt and Clemens. Garner used seven pitchers in a 4-2 win over Colorado last Friday.

Style points: There is nothing about the Braves that stands out, which is perhaps why they're hard to defend. Their average against left-handed pitching is the best in the major leagues, they'll take a walk and they lead the major leagues in ERA again. Cox is never out-foxed, and the element of surprise is always a crucial element in his managing scheme. The Astros are an old, slow team that, thanks to Garner, they're always in motion offensively, stealing bases, hitting and running, etc. Mostly they win by hitting home runs and with clutch hitting -- their average with runners in scoring position leads the league. Their starting pitching is good two out of every five days; the rest of the time, they throw as many relievers as possible and hope to get a lead to Lidge in the eighth or ninth inning.

Head-on: The season series could not have been tighter. The teams played six games, each won three. The Astros won the first game of the series, 5-3, the final five games of the series were decided by one run. The Astros outscored the Braves in the series, 23-22.

X-Factor: Braves right fielder J.D. Drew's career has been revitalized in Atlanta, where he has thrived thanks mostly to good health for the first time. This is his chance to show the baseball world that he is indeed as good as so many thought he was, that the Cardinals made a mistake dealing him and that he's capable of playing his best at the most important time of the year. Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio have scored more runs as teammates than Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. They are the two best players in the history of the franchise, two future Hall of Famers, yet they have never won a playoff series. This could be their last chance as teammates. They have played extremely well during this remarkable playoff run by the Astros.

Pivot Men: For the Braves, it's Jaret Wright. He will start Game 1 of the Division Series, followed by John Thomson, Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz. Wright has had a comeback season, resurrecting a career that was so bright after his performance in the 1997 World Series for the Indians. Now he'll pitch the opener -- a spot trusted to the likes of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Smoltz -- against Clemens. For the Astros, it's Carlos Beltran. He hasn't been around for the Astros' gruesome history in the postseason. He's unaffected, and he's incredibly talented. He can win a game in so many ways, and he'll need to be really good if the Astros are going to get to Round 2.

Nagging injuries: The Braves' Chipper Jones was hit on the right hand by a pitch on Saturday. Even though he's expected to play in Game 1 of the Division Series, he surely will be playing in pain. John Thomson is scheduled to start Game 2, but he left his last start Saturday with a pulled muscle in his side. Wright has had a sore ankle, but seemed fine in the bullpen Friday. Bagwell's shoulder has hurt every time he has thrown a ball this year. He has played through it.

Writer's Block: When in doubt, go with the hot hand. And no hand is hotter than Houston's. Now, with the rotation set and rested with Clemens and Oswalt in Games 1 and 2, the Astros are poised to win a playoff series for the first time in their history. The Braves have beaten them in three playoffs series in the last seven years, winning nine of 10 games. This is the year it changes. Barely. ASTROS in five.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight.