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ASTROS 9, BRAVES 3

Astros discover killer instinct

ATLANTA -- The Killer B's didn't have to go it alone. Roger Clemens and the powerful Houston lineup made sure the Astros got off to a good start in their quest to finally win a playoff series.

While Clemens continually pitched out of trouble, Brad Ausmus, Lance Berkman, Carlos Beltran, and Jason Lane homered for the Astros to lead a 9-3 rout of the Atlanta Braves in Game 1 of their NL division series yesterday.

The Astros set a franchise record for runs in a postseason game. They twice scored seven while losing to Philadelphia in the 1980 NLCS -- the first of their seven straight playoff series losses.

"I don't think we'll look back," Clemens said. "There's such a different cast of characters on this ballclub."

Houston dropped three of its last four postseason series to the Braves, most recently in 2001. Much of the blame fell on Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell -- the heart of the "Killer B's" for more than a decade.

Bagwell finally came through with his first postseason extra-base hit, an RBI double that put the Astros ahead for good in the third inning. But he and Biggio played a secondary role in beating the East champion Braves, who hardly looked like a team that won its 13th straight division title.

"Yeah, yeah, I enjoy being a part of the offense," said Bagwell, who came in with a career playoff average of .174. "But this it not about me and my postseason struggles."

The Astros carried over their momentum from the regular season, which they closed by winning 36 of 46 games to claim an improbable wild card.

"Obviously, we believe in our team," said Biggio, a .130 postseason hitter coming into the series. "You don't play like we did the last month and a half without team being a capital `T.' Everybody contributed."

Game 2 is today at Turner Field, with Houston sending 20-game winner Roy Oswalt to the mound against former Astro Mike Hampton. If the visitors win again, they'll have two chances to wrap up the series at Minute Maid Park, where Houston has an 18-game winning streak.

Ausmus led off the third with the first of Houston's three homers off Jaret Wright, tying the score at 1. Bagwell's RBI double was followed by Berkman's two-run homer into the Braves' bullpen for a 4-1 lead.

Beltran knocked out Wright in the fifth with another two-run homer. Bagwell singled off new pitcher Kevin Gryboski and came all the way around to score on Jeff Kent's double to left.

Clemens showed the effects of a stomach virus that knocked him out of his last start of the regular season. The Hall of Famer-to-be walked six -- all in the first four innings and the most he's given up in a game since 1998.

But Clemens also displayed plenty of grit in winning a Game 1 start for the first time in his storied career. The Braves stranded nine runners in the first four innings.

"I'm not going to come to the middle of the plate," Clemens said. "I'm going to be a little hardheaded and pitch to my spots."

It worked out fine. Clemens lasted seven innings, throwing 117 pitches, giving up six hits and two earned runs, while striking out seven. Not bad for a 42-year-old who briefly retired after last season, but came back to help his hometown Astros reach their first World Series.

In a nod to the guy who persuaded him to put off retirement, Clemens wore a glove mistakenly sent to lefthanded teammate Andy Pettitte, who is out for the season after elbow surgery.

"I wish he was pitching with us," Clemens said.

Atlanta loaded the bases in the first on Berkman's error and two walks. Clemens limited the damage to Johnny Estrada's sacrifice fly.

The Braves put runners at second and third with one out in the second. Rafael Furcal, playing just hours after appearing in court on a probation violation stemming from a drunken-driving arrest, struck out. Marcus Giles grounded out.

Clemens walked the bases loaded in the third, but escaped by making Charles Thomas look foolish. The rookie flailed at a pitch far out of the strike zone, then took a called third strike over the inside corner.

The Braves put two more runners on in the fourth. Clemens took care of that by jamming J.D. Drew, whose shattered bat flew farther than his popup back to the mound. Chipper Jones grounded out to end the inning.

"I thought we had a pretty good game plan," Jones said. "We got him to throw a lot of pitches early, but we missed opportunities."

While Clemens was frustrating the Braves, Wright was watching the ball fly out of the park. A leading contender for comeback player of the year, he equaled his career high by giving up three home runs. In fact, Wright had given up three homers in a month only once during the regular season, covering six starts in June.

"I thought I only made a couple of mistakes," said Wright. "They were home runs. They didn't miss them."

He won't have fond memories of this start, which was epitomized in the fourth when Morgan Ensberg hit a liner off Wright's left shin. The pitcher flipped off his glove and crawled along the ground in obvious pain, though he was able to stay in the game. Not for long. Beltran -- one of the new Killer B's -- finished off Wright the next inning.

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