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Pitching expected to dominate series

Pitching expected to dominate series

ATLANTA -- A year ago they combined for 57 runs in a record-setting slugfest of a National League Division Series, but this time both Houston and Atlanta hope to win this best-of-five series with pitching and defense.

Both sides have the arms to get the job done.

Beginning with Game 1 Wednesday afternoon at Turner Field, when Houston left-hander Andy Pettitte, 17-9, faces Atlanta right-hander Tim Hudson, 14-9, the Braves and Astros will throw aces at each other in their quest to advance to the National League Championship Series.

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"Coming out with Pettitte, [Roger] Clemens and [Roy] Oswalt, you got to feel pretty good about it," Houston manager Phil Garner said. "I was joking a few minutes ago, if I only had one other guy to add to this rotation, it would be Cy Young. It would be hard to get him here now, I guess."

Pettitte, who missed the playoffs last year because of an elbow injury, struck out 171 in 222 1/3 innings -- just eight short of his career high -- and finished second in the Major Leagues behind Clemens with a 2.39 ERA. The National League Pitcher of the Month for July and September ranked third in the league in road ERA with a 2.69 mark.

Hudson pitched eight scoreless innings against the Astros in the only time he faced them this season. He is 8-4 in his last 15 starts with a 3.30 ERA since the All-Star break.

"He's a No. 1 pitcher, there's no doubt about that," Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said. "He could be anybody's No. 1 in baseball, certainly a No. 2 on a lot of teams as well. I mean, it would be hard to choose him one or two. But he's a team leader, too. He has a lot of fun in the clubhouse. He's a lot of fun. He's energetic during the ballgame -- not only his ballgames but other ballgames. He's one of our big cheerleaders."

Like Pettitte, Hudson wasn't a part of the NLDS between the Braves and Astros last season. Hudson was acquired by the Braves from the A's in a trade last December.

"Coming over here, I knew we were going to have a shot to do something special," Hudson said. "It's been a little bit of a roller-coaster ride this year, you know, but we're here right now.

"We feel like we have a good team that's going to be able to go out there and win and put up a championship for this city of Atlanta. I'm excited about being here. This is an organization and the team I grew up rooting for. I'm excited about being an Atlanta Brave and pitching in Game 1."

Last year, the Astros set an NLDS record with 36 runs. The Braves scored 21 and were beaten in five games by the Astros, who went on to lose to the Cardinals in the National League Championship Series four games to three.

While both teams have dangerous sluggers in the middle of their respective orders, the depth isn't as deep as it was this time last year. Both sides lost big bats in Carlos Beltran, Jeff Kent and J.D. Drew. The two teams combined to score 140 fewer runs this season than they did in 2004.

Both teams, however, have better pitching this time. The Astros' team ERA of 3.51 is the second-best in baseball, trailing only St. Louis (3.49). The Braves (3.98) are sixth in the league, and Atlanta's defense, in particular, has been much better this season.

"We've had really good defense here for years, but this is one of the top ones, I think," Cox said. "We can really, really catch the ball. Our outfield with [Ryan] Langerhans, Andruw [Jones] and [Jeff] Francoeur is about as good as it can get. Especially [because] Francoeur can throw people out from right field. Up the middle is excellent. We can throw runners out if given a chance behind the plate. [Rafael] Furcal and [Marcus] Giles up the middle are just brilliant. Julio [Franco] and [Adam] LaRoche have been great at first base. Chipper [Jones] is playing as good third base as I've seen him in the last few years."

Add in Pettitte and Hudson to kick things off, and it's little wonder this series is expected to be dominated by pitching.

"You always feel good about pitching when you have good pitching, and we've had good pitching," Garner said. "There's absolutely no question. From top to bottom -- starting rotation, bullpen. By the way, you'll hear a lot of talk about our starters, but in modern-day baseball, you don't win unless you have a closer and you still don't win unless you have a bridge to the closer. We've had a fantastic job by our entire bullpen this year. That's what makes, in most cases, our starters as valuable as they are. When they leave the ballgame, we have pretty much a lockdown from that point if we've had the lead."

Of course baseball can be the most unpredictable sport, as Garner well knows.

"In 1979 in the World Series, in Pittsburgh when we went against Baltimore, they had three 20-game winners," Garner said. "It was supposed to be very much a pitching series. It wasn't that way at all; it was very much an offensive series. As you listened to me say a number of times, I don't know what to expect sometimes."

First pitch is scheduled for 4:14 p.m. ET.

Jim Molony is a writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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