Worth the wait, I hope. To tell you the truth I don't have a lot of insight into this series. I don't follow either of these teams closely, although I am a fan of Brad Lidge's slider and Kyle Farnsworth's right cross. I guess after the Astros' 10-5 explosion last night it would be easy to jump on their already swelling bandwagon (9 of 10 ESPN experts pick Houston to win this series) but I'm just going to pretend I didn't see that game. Which I didn't, actually, I was on a plane. But you know what I mean.
Starting pitching. A lot of the writeups for this series begin and end here. The Astros have Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and Roy Oswalt. These guys are pretty good. The Braves in theory would be able to match up to the first two with Tim Hudson and John Smoltz, but Smoltz isn't healthy. Jorge Sosa (13-3, 2.55 ERA, 1.39 WHIP) has been Atlanta's best pitcher but his record and ERA are frankly a little lucky given his peripherals. The Astros can use a three-man rotation without fear while Smoltz's fragility leaves the Braves with the unsavory necessity of having to start John Thomson (4-6, 4.47, 1.41) or Horacio Ramirez (11-9, 4.63, 1.39) in an elimination game. The Astros have the edge here but it's not anywhere near as sure a thing as some would have you believe. The loss of Mike Hampton, by the way, is really no big deal for Atlanta because Mike Hampton's reputation as an A-list starter is a bizarre myth. Advantage: Astros.
Bullpen. On the other hand, Houston's group of Lidge, Mike Gallo, Dan Wheeler, and Chad Qualls simply dominates compared to Atlanta's lackluster relievers (Jim Brower, Chris Reitsma, John Foster, et cetera). Farnsworth has stuff that's silly good but he's completely unreliable. Lidge on the other hand was sick this season (13.12 K/9) and starred in the posteason last year. Advantage: Astros.
Catcher.Brad Ausmus is one of the most overrated players in baseball. He has no power and doesn't hit for average, but he has been playing long enough that he at least understands the difference between a ball and a strike. Raul Chavez, his backup, also has a terrible bat and he hasn't yet made that distinction. Johnny Estrada had a disappointing year for the Braves but simply put he and Brian McCanncan hit, Ausmus and Chavez can't. Advantage: Braves.
First base.Adam LaRoche (.775 OPS) had a slightly better statistical year than Jeff Bagwell (.738) and of course he was much healthier. But you'd have to be pretty coldly unsentimental to give LaRoche the edge. There are two schools of thought on Bagwell and his teammate Craig Biggio's well-documented playoff struggles: either they ain't got it, or they're really, really due. Personally, I tend to favor the latter option. Advantage: Astros.
Second base. Craig Biggio, after some strange misadventures in Minute Maid Park's surreal center field, is back where he belongs for Houston and his offense has benefited from it (.264/.325/.468). Biggio broke Don Baylor's modern hit-by-pitch record this year, for what it's worth. I don't think there's another major league player around who generates a greater percentage of his value from sheer plunkability. There are some young candidates out there to be heir to Biggio's throne, though: Chicago's Aaron Rowand got hit 21 times in 2005, and the Jays' Shea Hillenbrand 22. Marcus Giles was only hit 5 times this year but he did go .291/.365/.461 with 15 homers. Biggio hit 26 long flies, but you and I both know that homers to right at Minute Maid Park should only count as ground-rule doubles. 19 of Biggio's shots came at home. Giles is the better fielder and baserunner. Advantage: Braves.
Shortstop.Adam Everett had a good year (for him) last year while Morgan Ensberg struggled; this season it was the other way around. If the Astros ever get both guys going at once, they'll really have something. Rafael Furcal will be the biggest free agent shortstop on the market this season. After the money Edgar Renteria and Orlando Cabrera got last year, Furcal's agent is probably a pretty happy man right about now. Rafael is younger and better than either of those guys. Advantage: Braves.
Third base.Chipper Jones is one of those guys like J.D. Drew who gets hurt every year but it never seems to affect him when he does play. Chipper was the best hitter on the Braves when he was out there (way better than Andruw Jones, which is yet another reason that A. Jones's MVP candidacy is a joke) and he's healthy now as far as I know. Morgan Ensberg was the Astros' offense at times this season but he's not in Chipper's class quite yet. He hit 16 of his 36 homers on the road, though, so you know his power's legit. Advantage: Braves.
Left field.Ryan Langerhans is one of the many young Braves who played over his head this year. He doesn't hit a lot of homers for a corner outfielder but he's a nice player. Lance Berkman's return from injury helped kickstart the Astros' surge from 15 below .500 to the playoffs. If he'd played all year, he'd have borderline MVP credentials: .293/.411/.524, 24 homers. He used to be kind of a joke as a switch-hitter but he slugged .429 hitting right-handed this year. Advantage: Astros.
Center field.Willy Taveras is a guy writers and managers love, but we know better. A guy who eats up 592 at-bats with a .666 OPS is not helping your team win. He was also caught stealing about a quarter of the time which for a guy with his pure speed is embarrassing. Andruw Jones should not under any circumstances be considered for the National League MVP award, but that doesn't mean he isn't a great player. He did win the home run title, and if he really has lost a step on defense he's still miles better than everybody else this side of Torii Hunter and Jim Edmonds. Advantage: Braves.
Right field. A matchup of two real good young players: Jason Lane and ROY candidate Jeff Francoeur. Francoeur has a gaudy OPS and doesn't walk at all. Lane has a lower batting average but comparable overall numbers. When it's this close you give the edge to the guy who's done it for longer. Advantage: Astros.
Manager. Bobby Cox is a marvel. Veterans and rookies alike love him. He also has the nonpareil Leo Mazzone hanging around to perform his voodoo on the pitchers. Phil Garner is a salt-of-the-earth type I thought would have worn out his welcome in Houston by now, but after recovering from awful starts to make the playoffs two seasons in a row, you have to give him his propers. Advantage: Braves.
OK, final count: Houston five, Atlanta seven. Well, I guess I can't pick the Astros now. Braves in five?