Brad Ausmus is hardly a force offensively, but he hit .289 after June 30. Ausmus remains above-average defensively, though not quite as good as he was three or so years ago. He earns high praise from the pitching staff for his game-calling and defensive skills. A back problem limited Johnny Estrada to 102 games and a .257 batting average this year in what was a disappointing season following his All-Star campaign of 2004. Brian McCann filled in nicely for Estrada.
FIRST BASEEDGE: ASTROS
With Jeff Bagwell limited to pinch-hitting duties, Lance Berkman ended the season as the everyday first baseman. After a slow start following knee surgery, the switch-hitting slugger finished strong, hitting .300 with 11 homers and 27 RBIs in the season's final 30 games and was among the league leaders in on-base percentage (.411). Adam LaRoche and Julio Franco combined to hit .264 with 29 homers and 119 RBIs, giving the Braves the kind of production they needed from the corner. All three are, at best, adequate defensively.
SECOND BASEEDGE: BRAVES
Craig Biggio set a career high with 26 homers, though his average dropped for the second consecutive season to .264. Biggio's skills have deteriorated from their lofty levels of the 1990s, but he remains a productive player and a clutch hitter if not the baserunning and defensive standout he once was. Atlanta's Marcus Giles had another solid year, hitting .291 with 15 homers and stealing 16 bases while teaming with Rafael Furcal to form an above average double-play combo and top-of-the-order tandem.
THIRD BASEEDGE: ASTROS
All-Star Morgan Ensberg (.283, 36 homers, 101 RBIs) was Houston's best player this season. Injuries limited Atlanta's Chipper Jones to 109 games, but he still put up typical numbers (.296, 21 homers, 72 RBIs) and led the team in on-base percentage (.412). Jones' bat cooled in September, just as it did in 2004. At least while Jones was out, Wilson Betemit filled in nicely and hit .305 as a stop-gap third baseman.
Georgia resident Adam Everett is Houston's best defensive player, but he hit less than .250 and struck out too often. Everett missed the playoff roster last season because of a wrist injury, but he is completely healthy this time. Furcal has been spectacular for Atlanta, banging out 54 extra-base hits, stealing 46 bases and giving the Braves everything they could ask for defensively and from a leadoff man.
LEFT FIELDEDGE: BRAVES
Both teams covered left field with the tag-team method, each using no fewer than eight different players this season. Houston usually went with rookie Chris Burke, who was normally a second baseman. Burke has less than 140 career Major League games and though he is a high-ceiling prospect, he's still learning his way. Atlanta's Ryan Langerhans has really come on strong down the stretch to grab most of the playing time from Kelly Johnson, who is a cut below Langerhans defensively. Todd Hollandsworth adds depth and experience.
CENTER FIELDEDGE: BRAVES
Houston's Willy Taveras is a Rookie of the Year candidate and one of the fastest men in the game. Taveras is a blur and may steal 100 bases someday. He also flirted with a .300 batting average this season (.291). On the other side, Atlanta's Andruw Jones is an MVP candidate who had a career year offensively (51 homers, 128 RBIs) and is, arguably, the best defensive center fielder in the Major Leagues.
RIGHT FIELDEDGE: ASTROS
An everyday player for the first time in his career, Jason Lane's season has been one of stops and starts. The streaks evened out as the season progressed and the Houston outfielder became a solid starter with power (26 homers) and his 78 RBIs ranked third on the team behind Ensberg and Berkman. Atlanta rookie Jeff Francoeur had a sensational start and despite a poor finish, kept his batting average at .300. Like Lane, Francoeur needs to be more selective at the plate.
The Astros have the best closer in the game in Brad Lidge and an underrated setup man in Dan Wheeler. Chad Qualls, when his slider is working, can be nasty. But the quality drops off after those three. The Astros are particularly thin from the left side. The Atlanta bullpen failed to convert saves 23 times and went through three different closers. Kyle Farnsworth was superb since he was acquired from Detroit and Blaine Boyer was a pleasant surprise. Chris Reitsma (3-6, 3.93 ERA) made 76 appearances. Moving Jorge Sosa to the rotation cost the bullpen another effective right-handed option.
Orlando Palmeiro and Jose Vizcaino give Houston two of the more versatile and skilled veteran pinch-hitters around. Add in Bagwell, 3-for-9 as a pinch-hitter since his return, and the dangerous Mike Lamb, and the Astros have the most formidable bench they've had since 1994 (Sid Bream, Kevin Bass, Milt Thompson, Mike Felder and Tony Eusebio). Injuries gave several Braves playing time they wouldn't have otherwise gotten. That provided a deeper bench in Atlanta as well, with Wilson Betemit, Brian Jordan and whoever isn't starting at first base, catcher or the corner outfield spots available.
Phil Garner took a team that was 15 games under .500 in May to 15 over and a playoff spot in September. As good as Garner's second-half managing job was in 2004, this season may have been the finest work of his managerial career. Garner pushed all the right buttons and was a key in getting this team back to the playoffs. Atlanta's Bobby Cox also had, perhaps, his finest season as a skipper. The Braves overcame having to use 16 rookies and a rash of injuries to win their 14th consecutive division title.
With 43-year-old Roger Clemens, the 39-year-old Biggio and the 37-year-old Bagwell, this playoff series has a certain swan-song sentiment surrounding it. If this is indeed the last hurrah for this group of talented veterans, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Astros put together another memorable run, similar to what they did last year -- and that was without Andy Pettitte.
Jim Molony 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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