Braves even NLDS at one game apiece

ATLANTA (AP) -- The Rocket got rocked by the rookie. Then, while Roger Clemens shuffled uncomfortably on the mound, Brian McCann
emerged from the Atlanta Braves' dugout for a most unexpected curtain call.

"I was just sitting back letting him enjoy it over there," Clemens said. "What else can you do?"

McCann hit a three-run homer off Clemens in his first postseason at-bat, sending John Smoltz and the Braves to a 7-1 victory over the Houston Astros on a drizzly Thursday night, tying the best-of-five NL Division Series at one game apiece.

Smoltz picked up where he left off six years ago, pitching seven strong innings in his first October start since the 1999 World Series.

"There's a thousand emotions going through my head right now," he said. "I'm going to sleep a long time tonight."

While Smoltz's performance was a long time in the making -- he spent the last four postseasons as a closer -- it was hardly unexpected for someone who's long been one of baseball's best big-game pitchers.

Smoltz broke a one-day tie with Houston's Andy Pettitte to
reclaim the title of baseball's winningest postseason pitcher, improving to 7-0 in the division series and 15-4 overall.

Then there's McCann, who was batting in the playoffs for the first time when he stepped to the plate in the second inning with two on and two outs.

McCann was less than three months old when Clemens made his major-league for the Red Sox in 1984. Now, the two were face to face -- a video game-playing catcher who started the season with Double-A Mississippi vs. a seven-time Cy Young Award winner who stopped off in Houston on his way to Cooperstown.

"Logic would say Roger has the upper hand in that situation," Atlanta's Chipper Jones said wryly.

Not this time. With Smoltz on deck, Clemens missed with his first two pitches and then left a fastball over the plate. McCann connected with a 409-foot drive that ricocheted into the Braves' bullpen in right field for a 3-1 lead.

"A very hittable pitch," Clemens said. "When a guy's at this level, it doesn't matter if he's 21 or 41. He's going to hit that."

McCann was urged back on the field by manager Bobby Cox, tipping his cap to the roaring crowd after becoming the first player in Braves history (including Boston and Milwaukee, too) to homer in his first trip to the plate in the postseason.

McCann also joined Clemens in a more obscure record: Biggest age gap between a pitcher and a batter who hit a postseason homer -- 21 years and 200 days, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

Another of the 18 rookies to play for the Braves this season, reliever Macay McBride, caught the home run ball in the bullpen and delivered it to McCann after the game.

"That won't sink in for a while," McCann said. "[Clemens] is one of the greatest pitchers of all-time. He just got a pitch over the plate and I connected. It was neat."

With the NL East champion Braves having bounced back from a 10-5 loss in Game 1, the series shifts to Houston. Twenty-game winner Roy Oswalt is set to go against Atlanta's surprising 13-game winner, Jorge Sosa, on Saturday.

The Astros hope Oswalt looks better than Clemens, who led the majors in ERA (1.87) at age 43 but was bothered late in the season by a sore hamstring and was also stung emotionally by the death of his mother.

The Braves stretched their lead to 5-1 in the third. Adam LaRoche hit an opposite-field double to bring home two more runs. The ball slipped under the glove of diving left fielder Orlando Palmeiro before rolling all the way to the wall.

With Smoltz on the mound -- stiff shoulder and all -- the lead was secure. This is what he yearned for after spending three-plus seasons as the Braves' closer, a role that left his playoff fortunes in the hands of others.

Smoltz had to wait an extra day to make this long-awaited playoff start, getting bumped from the expected Game 1 nod to give his shoulder a little extra rest.

No problem, considering how long he had already waited.

Back in that '99 World Series, Smoltz's last year as a starter before an elbow injury cost him an entire season and prompted his move to the bullpen, he struck out 11 in Game 4 against the Yankees.

It wasn't enough to keep New York from completing the sweep with a 4-1 victory. And the winning pitcher that day? Clemens, who was back to face Smoltz, now 38, in the oldest pitching matchup in postseason history.

The Braves added two more runs in the seventh against reliever Chad Qualls, even with two runners thrown out on the basepaths. Andruw Jones and Jeff Francoeur had RBI singles to give the shaky Braves bullpen a six-run cushion.

Andruw Jones, who came into the playoffs mired in a 6-for-51 slump, followed up a Game 1 homer with three more hits, scoring each time.

Chris Reitsma, who retired only one hitter while giving up four runs in the opener, gave up a leadoff single in the eighth but retired the next three hitters. Closer Kyle Farnsworth worked a 1-2-3 ninth.

Houston took a 1-0 lead in the first on a run-scoring single by Jason Lane, but Smoltz escaped a bases-loaded jam by striking out Adam Everett.

"I knew the first inning was going to be my biggest inning," Smoltz said. "I waited a long time to start a game of this magnitude. When I got through the first inning, that was the biggest test."

Smoltz threw 93 pitches, his shoulder holding up just fine as he gave up one run and seven hits. His only walk was an intentional one, and he struck out five.

Clemens left after the fifth, his line showing five runs, six hits, three walks and only two strikeouts. It equaled the most earned runs he allowed during a regular-season game, and Houston's offensive support was about par for the course.

In 20 of the Rocket's 32 starts coming into the playoffs, the Astros scored three runs or less -- including nine shutouts.

Game notes
According to Elias, Seattle's Jamie Moyer and Cleveland's Chuck Finley held the previous record for oldest pitchers to face each other in the postseason, a combined 77 years when they met in Game 5 of the 2001 ALDS. ... Cox and first base umpire Jeff Nelson
got plenty of face time. Three times, Cox came out to argue close calls.