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Braves exceeded expectations

Molony: Braves exceeded expectations

HOUSTON -- They were written off more times than a business lunch, but the Atlanta Braves kept their streak of playoff appearances intact even if the season's finish was disappointing.

The heartbreaking 7-6 loss to Houston in Game 4 of the National League Division Series on Sunday at Minute Maid Park was tough for them to take, but it didn't completely overshadow what should be remembered as not only another successful season by the Braves, but one where they exceeded many observers' expectations.

They were not the consensus pick to win the National League East Division title, yet the Braves won. Again. They have won a record 14 consecutive division titles.

The Braves overcame an inordinate number of injuries -- the Braves used 18 different rookies this year -- and still finished first in the toughest division in baseball.

They ran into a hot team with excellent pitching in the Astros in the NLDS, and earned their respect.

"They didn't quit, that team kept battling," Houston second baseman Craig Biggio said. "That's why they've won 14 in a row. They're a class organization with a lot of guys who play the game the right way. We had to leave it all on the field to get by them."

Said Biggio's teammate Roger Clemens: "Those guys don't quit, ever. They really fought us hard."

The Braves were not even favored to win Sunday, yet they came so very close.

After all, the Braves had starter Tim Hudson pitching on three days' rest after Hudson had been soundly beaten by Houston in Game 1 at Turner Field.

The Astros, owners of the second-best home record in baseball, had won four consecutive postseason home games. The Astros were also going with right-hander Brandon Backe, who has thrived as a starter at Minute Maid Park. Houston's bullpen was rested while Atlanta's came in with an ERA of 11.40 for the series.

The Braves, however, have a knack for doing the unexpected.

Hudson was outstanding, and only a collapse by the Atlanta bullpen in the eighth inning changed the outcome. Normally reliable reliever Kyle Farnsworth couldn't hold a 6-1 lead in the eighth and kept this series from returning to Atlanta for Game 5.

Until Houston rookie Chris Burke homered off Joey Devine -- who went from North Carolina State to a playoff pressure cooker in the space of a few months -- the bullpen had strung together eight scoreless innings.

True, this was Atlanta's fourth consecutive first-round playoff exit. For a proud team like the Braves, just getting here is not much of a consolation.

"It was frustrating, and I've said it before, if I knew we were going to lose in the first round, I'd rather not be in the playoffs at all," Adam LaRoche said. "There's nothing worse than having to go home with a loss. That's about as high and low as you can get."


Division Series slump
The Braves used to own the Division Series, winning the first five times they appeared and six of their first seven. But they've lost the last four.
Year
Opponent
Result
1995
Colorado
W, 3-1
1996
Los Angeles
W, 3-0
1997
Houston
W, 3-0
1998
Chicago Cubs
W, 3-0
1999
Houston
W, 3-1
2000
St. Louis
L, 3-0
2001
Houston
W, 3-0
2002
San Francisco
L, 3-2
2003
Chicago Cubs
L, 3-2
2004
Houston
L, 3-2
2005
Houston
L, 3-1

Another year, another disappointment. The veterans on the Braves roster are well versed on the critics' chorus concerning Atlanta.

They also know that their legacy of consecutive titles and sustained excellence is unmatched in professional sports.

"I think the legacy is what it is," third baseman Chipper Jones said. "We've won 14 straight. We know how special that is.

"Would we like to win more playoff series? Yeah, of course. But it just hasn't happened for us. Unfortunately, in the past couple years, we've run into a hot Kerry Wood, a hot Mark Prior, a hot Roger Clemens, a hot Roy Oswalt, and having to go back through the Astros again this year is not an easy task."

At least the Braves made it this far.

Disappointing as Sunday's loss was, there are 22 teams which didn't make the playoffs who would have loved to be in Atlanta's place.

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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