2. Just as they did last year, the Astros are peaking at at the right time. Last season, Houston went 36-10 down the stretch to reach the playoffs. This time, the Astros, despite a weaker offense than they had a year ago, overcame a 15-30 start to go 75-41 (through Aug. 28, a .646 pace) to reach the playoffs.
3. The middle three of the Houston order -- Lance Berkman, Morgan Ensberg and Jason Lane -- have picked up the pace in the last few weeks and appear primed for playoff production. The Astros have been shut out 16 times this season, but this offense is much more effective when the three in the middle are producing as they have been these last few weeks.
Achilles' Heel: The Houston offense ranks 25th out of the 30 Major League teams in both scoring (679 runs) and hitting (.257 batting average). Only San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Seattle, Washington and Minnesota have a lower team on-base percentage than Houston's .323. This is a lineup that has proven to be vulnerable to long scoring droughts. Should one occur in the playoffs, it could offset fine pitching performances from the Houston staff.
1. Houston offense vs. Kyle Farnsworth and Chris Reitsma: If the series is pitching-dominated as expected, the outcome could be decided in the late innings. The two right-handers handling the closer's role for Atlanta are former NL Central pitchers and thus no strangers to the Astros. Kyle Farnsworth has a 4.94 ERA in 58 1/3 career innings against Houston and Chris Reitsma is 0-5 with three saves and a 5.01 ERA against the Astros, entering the season. Reitsma gave up a run in his only two innings against the Astros this season.
2. Brad Lidge vs. the Atlanta offense: "Lights Out" Lidge has converted 40-of-47 save opportunities and has struck out 101 in just 67 2/3 innings. Take away an uncharacteristically poor (for Lidge) month of May, and the right-hander is 4-1 with a 1.16 ERA instead of 4-3 with a 2.13 ERA. In his last eight appearances against the Braves, covering 8 2/3 innings, Lidge has allowed two earned runs (2.08 ERA) and recorded two saves. If Clemens, Pettitte and friends give a lead to Lidge, it's usually lights out for opponents.
3. Willy Taveras vs. Johnny Estrada: Willy Taveras had a far better September this year than his predecessor in center field, Carlos Beltran, did for Houston last September. Though he won't have an October like Beltran did last year, Taveras will impact this playoff series one way or another. Runs will be at a premium and Taveras has done an outstanding job of manufacturing offense with his speed. Keeping the rookie off the bases, or holding him at first when he does reach base, will be key in this series.
Darkhorse: Craig Biggio. The second baseman is hitting just .232 in September, but has seven homers and 16 RBIs, including a few game-winners, to help the Astros reach the playoffs. A career .314 hitter at Turner Field, the 39-year-old Biggio remains a dangerous force and one who could swing the balance of a game with one swing of the bat.
Reasons the Braves will win:
1. The Braves dominated the Astros during their regular season meetings, beating them five out of six and outscoring the Astros, 42-13, including 38-8 in a four-game sweep at Turner Field from May 5-8. The dynamics of both teams have changed somewhat since then, but the Braves still have the more talented team.
2. The Braves have the home-field advantage and the best home record in the league. Houston is tied with San Diego for the worst road record of any playoff team. Atlanta came out on top in the toughest division in baseball and will be rested and eager to avenge last season's NLDS loss to the Astros.
3. Tim Hudson will be a difference-maker. The right-hander was with Oakland last season and has been outstanding this season with Atlanta, especially against Houston. In Hudson, Atlanta manager Bobby Cox has just the pitcher capable of matching zeros with the Houston aces and a competitor who thrives on these kinds of challenges.
Achilles' Heel: Mike Hampton is injured and out for the season. Rafael Furcal is playing despite cartilage damage in his right knee. Julio Franco has a sore elbow. John Smoltz's right shoulder has been acting up recently and rookie pitcher Blaine Boyer has had discomfort in his right arm. And who knows if catcher Estrada's back spasms will flare up again? The Braves have had to overcome injuries all season long to get this far, but the health issue could quickly become a concern against Houston if key players go down.
1. Andruw Jones vs. Roger Clemens. If the series goes the distance, Clemens would get two starts and how well the Atlanta cleanup hitter fares against the seven-time Cy Young Award winner could impact the first and final games of this NLDS. The Atlanta slugger is the most dangerous hitter in the lineup and how well teams have handled him this season has been instrumental in the outcome. Clemens has given up only 11 homers in 204 1/3 innings this year, including just six on the road.
2. Rafael Furcal and Marcus Giles vs. Brad Ausmus. The Braves, like Houston, will try to manufacture runs with the speed at the top of the order. Not an easy task with pickoff moves like Pettitte's, but the Braves will pick their spots and their success against Houston's two-time Gold Glove catcher Ausmus will be important.
3. Adam LaRoche and Jeff Francoeur vs. Houston pitching. If these two aren't hitting, the Astros will have an easier time pitching around Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones. Francoeur, whose on-base percentage was .380 or higher his first two months since his arrival from the Minors, has a .287 on-base percentage in September and has seen his batting average fall 126 points since Aug. 9 to .247. His slide has been offset by the resurgence of LaRoche, who after hitting .202 in August has hit .319 in September with five homers and 11 RBIs.
Darkhorse: Ryan Langerhans. The native Texan has been Atlanta's hottest hitter of late (.295 since the All-Star break and .344 in September) and when he's not starting, the left-handed hitting Langerhans figures to get key pinch-hit appearances against Houston's heavily right-handed bullpen.
Prediction: Braves, in five games.