ATLANTA -- How many teams can save a 20-game winner for Game 2 of a playoff series?
One. And with Roy Oswalt set for a postseason start four years in the making, the Houston Astros are feeling pretty good.
Oswalt, who won 19 games last season and 20 in 2004, will take the hill for Game 2 of the Division Series against the Braves on Thursday afternoon. He is following 18-game winner Roger Clemens, who worked Game 1 and teamed with Oswalt in the second half of the season to pitch baseball's hottest team into the playoffs.
"For the last month, Roger and I, we've been approaching every game as a postseason game, just because they were depending on us to put up innings for the team," Oswalt said on the eve of his first career postseason start.
He was scheduled to make his playoff debut in Game 4 of the 2001 Division Series, when Oswalt was a rookie. But Houston was swept in three games by -- you guessed it -- Atlanta.
Now, it's a chance for payback.
"You've only got five games to prove you're the better team," Oswalt said. "So every start counts, and you can't be out there making too many mistakes."
Clemens and Oswalt made few mistakes down the stretch. Clemens went 8-1 in the second half while Oswalt went a National League-best 12-3, winning 11 of his last 13 decisions and seven of his last eight.
It was exactly what the Astros needed, especially after the staff lost Andy Pettitte and Wade Miller to injuries.
"He knew that neither he nor I could afford to stub our toe," Clemens said. "Once we lost a couple of our other horses, [we knew] that we had to be basically perfect. He accepted that challenge, as well. He's fun to watch."
For the season, Oswalt went 20-10 and joined American Leaguers Johan Santana and Curt Schilling as the Majors' only 20-game winners. Over the past four seasons, Oswalt owns the fourth-best winning percentage (.700, 63-27) in the Majors.
At 27 years old, he has emerged as an ace. Oswalt got the nod over Clemens and Pettitte to start Opening Day for the Astros, and leaned on Clemens all year long to aid his development and learned from the veteran to study videotape. Now, the duo is contending for the NL Cy Young Award.
And Oswalt heads an impressive young class of pitchers in the NL Central, a division that a few years ago was brushed aside as "Comedy Central." Combine Oswalt with 26-year-old Brandon Backe, Milwaukee's Ben Sheets (26), Pittsburgh's Oliver Perez (23) and Chicago's Mark Prior (24), Kerry Wood (27) and Carlos Zambrano (23), and some of the league's best young aces spend their summers in the Midwest.
"I think [Oswalt] doesn't get perhaps a lot of the credit that he deserves, and maybe a little bit of it is overshadowed by The Rocket this year," Astros manager Phil Garner said. "That's OK. I don't think Roy would argue that point."
Roy Oswalt / P
Weight: 185 lbs
Bats: R / Throws: R
Oswalt said he planned to meet with Clemens after Game 1 to discuss Game 2 strategy. Oswalt took a no-decision in his only start against Atlanta this season, pitching 7 1/3 innings and allowing three earned runs.
He'll pay particular attention to Braves outfielders J.D. Drew and Andruw Jones, who have combined to bat .400 (10-for-25) lifetime against Oswalt.
What makes him so nasty? Oswalt can muscle his four-seam fastball from 92 mph all the way up to 96, sometimes 97, and counters that pitch with a 68 mph off-speed pitch that gives opposing hitters nightmares.
Call it what you want; slow curveball or breaking changeup. It's one of the nastiest pitches in Major League Baseball.
"Oh, yeah," said Houston catcher Raul Chavez. "He throws two of those curveballs and the hitters think he'll throw another. Then he throws the fastball right by them. He throws everything for a strike. On an 0-2 [count], it doesn't matter."
One of the only other pitchers with such a huge discrepancy between his heat and his breaking stuff is Minnesota's Santana, who pitched seven shutout innings to beat the Yankees in the American League Division Series on Tuesday night. Santana is the leading contender for the AL Cy Young Award.
"Those guys are two of the best pitchers in baseball," Chavez said. "You win 20 games in the big leagues, that's no accident. What Roy is doing is no accident. My God, he's going to get much better, year by year."
"I think that, like Andy [Pettitte], he has a base that if he wants to pitch for a long time, he's going to be able to do that because he has the wherewithal, he has the mental makeup to do that," Clemens said. "[Oswalt is a] very stern, stubborn-type individual. He really stayed with his convictions."
Adam McCalvy 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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