Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz, right, celebrates with teammates Johnny Estrada (23) Mike Hampton (32) and Russ Ortiz, left, after beating the Houston Astros in Game 4 of their National League Division Series Sunday, Oct. 10, 2004 in Houston. The Braves beat the Astros 6-5 to tie the best-of-series at 2-2.
AP Photo/David J. Phillip
HOUSTON As soon as Roger Clemens was gone, the Atlanta Braves pounced on the Houston Astros' bullpen and avoided another quick exit from the playoffs.
Adam LaRoche hit a tying, three-run homer in the sixth inning and J.D. Drew singled home the go-ahead run in the ninth for a 6-5 victory Sunday that tied the best-of-five NL series at two games apiece.
''We get to go back home and the plane ride's a lot easier,'' Atlanta closer John Smoltz said. ''We worked very hard to get home-field advantage and we need to take care of it. I feel like we got a break today.''
Jaret Wright, the Game 1 loser, starts for the Braves on Monday at Turner Field against 20-game winner Roy Oswalt, who didn't get a decision in Game 2.
Pitching on only three days' rest, Clemens left after five innings with a 5-2 lead, but the Braves rallied to snap Houston's 19-game home winning streak. It was another agonizing loss in October for the Astros, still looking to win a postseason series for the first time.
''Streaks are streaks, they've got to come to an end some time,'' Braves manager Bobby Cox said.
Houston tried to mount its own comeback in the bottom of the ninth, when Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman singled off Smoltz with one out to put runners at the corners. Smoltz then got his record 14th postseason win when Jeff Kent grounded into a game-ending double play.
On the verge of its third consecutive first-round loss, Atlanta made its move right after Chad Qualls replaced Clemens. Chipper Jones singled, Andruw Jones doubled with one out and LaRoche homered into the Astros' bullpen in right.
The winning rally began when Russ Springer, who relieved Brad Lidge to start the ninth, hit Rafael Furcal with a pitch with two outs and Furcal stole second.
Drew, hitless in three previous at-bats Sunday and 2-for-15 in the series to that point, singled to right-center, with Furcal scoring easily.
''Three runs is not enough against that team,'' Kent said. ''And then they bring in a guy like Smoltz, who is dominating. It's tough to score runs against him. You have to get ahead against them early so you don't have to face a guy like that.''
Coming into Sunday, Clemens was 0-3 with a 6.98 ERA on short rest. He was making a quick turnaround for the first time since April 11, 2002. And he hadn't pitched on three days' rest in the postseason since a loss to Oakland in 2000.
Not surprisingly, Clemens got off to a rough start.
He gave up three straight singles to begin the second, with Andruw Jones driving in Chipper Jones. LaRoche followed by grounding into a double play that scored Johnny Estrada to give Atlanta a 2-0 lead.
Clemens got the Astros' offense going in the second with his first postseason RBI, a sacrifice fly that scored Kent.
The inning appeared to end on Craig Biggio's popup that hit the rafters and was caught by Atlanta starter Russ Ortiz. But the ball was ruled foul, and Biggio followed with a three-run homer that sailed over the left-field fence and sent the crowd into a frenzy.
Carlos Beltran followed with a double and Bagwell singled him in to give the Astros a 5-2 lead.
Shortly after that, the Jumbotron began showing an animated skit in which swarms of killer bees buzz over the Braves' tomahawk. The skit ended with a single word emblazoned across the Astros' shooting star logo: Believe.
Not just yet. Houston fell apart when Clemens left, and the sellout crowd of 43,335 got eerily quiet.
''He was at the end of his road,'' Astros manager Phil Garner said. ''As a matter of fact, he was on pure fumes. He got us through it. We had some momentum, we had the lead. We let it slip away.''
Chipper Jones had a different take on the Braves' comeback.
''We overcame a fluke five-run rally,'' he said. ''You're just thinking to yourself right there that there is no way we're going to end our season on that note.''
With the score tied at 5 in the eighth, Houston put runners at the corners and threatened to take the lead.
Orlando Palmeiro hit a grounder that Marcus Giles scooped up and flipped to Smoltz just before Palmeiro got to the bag for the final out of the inning.
''This isn't a new situation,'' Houston catcher Brad Ausmus said. ''We've been on the cusp of being eliminated numerous times. We've seen the end of the plank. We've seen the shark-infested waters.''
Notes: Houston dropped to 1-5 in postseason Game 4s. ... The Astros lost their first game at home since Aug. 22 against the Chicago Cubs. ... Chipper Jones had two hits after going 0-for-11 in the first three games of the series. ... Houston set a first-round record with eight homers in the series.
Peninsula Clarion ©2014. All Rights Reserved.