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Astros feel good going to Atlanta
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10/03/2004 10:42 PM ET
Astros feel good going to Atlanta
Club confident for fourth playoff turn with Braves
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Roger Clemens will get the start for the Astros in Game 1 in Atlanta. (Scott Rovak/Cardinals)

HOUSTON -- Make no mistake, the Houston Astros were not a happy group Sunday morning when they found out Roger Clemens was sick with a stomach virus and couldn't pitch.

But after Brandon Backe valiently took Clemens' place and led the Astros to a 5-3 Wild Card-clinching win over the Rockies, the Astros were thrilled the Rocket didn't make an appearance in the must-win game. Now, the ace right-hander will be more than rested and ready when he starts Game 1 of the Division Series on Wednesday in Atlanta.

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Roy Oswalt will pitch Game 2 Thursday. Both games begin at 3 p.m. CT. The Braves will turn to Jaret Wright to face the Rocket on Wednesday, and John Thomson will face Oswalt on Thursday.

"It works out well for us," Jeff Bagwell said. "We did win so now we can get Roger on full rest, get him healthy so he can start Game 1 for us."

Astros fans, from the casual to the die-hard, remember all too painfully that their team has not had a lot of luck in the postseason. In fact, in the history of the franchise, Houston is 0-7 in postseason series.

The numbers are not pretty. Since 1997, the Astros have made four playoff appearances. They never made it past the Division Series, and they were beaten by the Braves three times. Two were sweeps, and one was a series loss, three games to one.

But the Astros, riding high with confidence after reeling off a club-record 18-game home winning streak and ending the regular season with a 36-10 mark since Aug. 15, are not intimidated by ghosts of Atlantas past.

"It's a different Braves team, and we're a different team," Lance Berkman said. "We've never had Roger Clemens pitch for us in the playoffs and we've never had Roy pitch for us in the playoffs, either. Those two factors would probably nullify the stigma we've had with the Braves.

"I don't know if that means we're going to do it this time, but at the same time, whoever plays the best baseball is going to win. It wouldn't matter if we played the Dodgers, the Braves or the Cardinals."

Club owner Drayton McLane actually wanted the Astros to play the Braves in the first round.

"A lot of people said, 'Don't you want to play Los Angeles?' " he said. "I said, 'No. I want to play the Braves.' We struggled with those guys three years. I want to show we can beat them."

Count general manager Gerry Hunsicker as another top executive brimming with confidence. So what if the Astros only have two proven starters? So what if they have no idea who's going to pitch Game 3?

"Bring 'em on," Hunsicker said. "It's our year. We've got our pitchers set up. We were just laughing upstairs. I don't know who has made it to the playoffs with two starting pitchers. I'm not saying that to downplay the other three guys in our rotation, but let's face it, outside of Roy and Roger, the rest of the guys are guys that we've tried to patch and fill in. They've done a tremendous job. It's just like someone's writing a script."

The Game 3 start will likely go to Backe, but even so, the Astros are going to have to rely on most of their playoff wins to come from Clemens and Oswalt, mostly on short rest.

Those two are plenty for the Astros to feel like they could do something special in October.

"We haven't had much success in the postseason, but hopefully it's our turn to have a couple of breaks go our way," Craig Biggio said. "Sometimes the best team doesn't always win, and we've been on both sides of that. We're on a roll right now and hopefully something magical will happen."

"It's a new year," said Bagwell, who, like Biggio, was on all three teams that lost to the Braves in past playoffs. "A lot of peole want to talk about that we haven't beaten the Braves in the playoffs, and that's a true fact. Nobody's hiding from that. But every year is a different year."

Bagwell shrugged off any notion that there is a revenge factor when the Astros play the Braves.

"I don't care about revenge," he said. "I just want to win. I don't care how we do it. I just want to win."

Alyson Footer 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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