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Braves come up short once again

ATLANTA -- They jumped on each other at the pitcher's mound,
then headed off to the clubhouse to pop some champagne.

It was all new to the Houston Astros, but they seemed to know
what they were doing.

In their 43rd year of existence and eighth trip to the playoffs,
the Astros finally won a postseason series. After such a long,
arduous journey, the final step wasn't tough at all: a 12-3 rout of
the Atlanta Braves on Monday night in the deciding Game 5 of their
first-round NL playoff series.

Carlos Beltran hit two more homers and drove in five runs, while
original Killer B's Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell chipped in during
a five-run seventh inning that buried the Braves.

"It's nice to move on," Biggio said. "Finally."

The clubhouse celebration was rather muted for a team that has
endured so much postseason disappointment. The Astros enjoyed
soaking their owner, Drayton McLane but didn't look to be satisfied
with winning one playoff series.

Next up for the wild-card Astros is a matchup against Central
Division rival St. Louis in the NL championship series starting
Wednesday night at Busch Stadium.

"The past is the past," Beltran said. "We win. We move on."

The Astros snapped an 0-for-7 record of futility in the
playoffs, beating their longtime nemesis. The Braves eliminated
Houston in 1997, '99 and '01, but they couldn't escape their own
postseason demons this time.

"This is what I came here for," said Roger Clemens, who put
off retirement to pitch for his hometown club and is now four wins
away from getting back to the World Series.

The Astros matched the Brooklyn Dodgers for most series losses
before getting their first win. The Bums won on their eighth try in
the 1955 World Series.

After squandering a three-run lead at home in Game 4, the Astros
had this series right where they wanted it.

Atlanta has lost Game 5 of the division series three years in a
row -- all at Turner Field. The second-largest crowd in franchise
history, 54,068, saw another familiar ending.

Beltran homered four times in the series, breaking the Houston
record for a postseason series. In a poignant note, the record was
formerly held by Ken Caminiti, who hit three in an opening-round
loss to the Braves in 1999.

Caminiti, who spent 10 seasons with the Astros, died Sunday of
an apparent heart attack at age 41.

The news hit Caminiti's former teammates -- Biggio and Bagwell --
especially hard.

"I think I felt his spirit out there," Biggio said.

"I know he's smiling somewhere," Bagwell added.

The team that proudly displays 13 straight division titles still
has only one World Series to show for it. It marked the fifth
straight year that the Braves' season ended at the Ted.

This one was especially dismal, equaling the worst postseason
loss in franchise history.

John Smoltz hopes it want diminish the perception of a team that
was picked to finish no better than third in the NL East.

"For one night, it's a very terrible feeling," the Braves
closer said. "When you break down this team, it was a really
remarkable year."

Houston jumped ahead 3-0 on Jaret Wright, with Beltran homering
in the third. The Braves had the big crowd roaring in the fifth
when Rafael Furcal and Johnny Estrada hit solo homers, but Beltran
hit a drive off Wright that just cleared the right-field wall
leading off the sixth.

The Braves were done. Unlike Los Angeles a night earlier, they
didn't bother coming out when it was over to shake the victors'
hands.

Roy Oswalt, pitching on three days' rest for the second time
this season, made it through five innings. He threw 111 pitches
while the Braves stranded seven runners.

Houston poured it on in the seventh, scoring five runs with two
outs. Chris Reitsma gave up RBI singles to Biggio and Beltran
before Bagwell launched a mammoth two-run homer into the left-field
seats. Jeff Kent added an RBI single off Tom Martin for a 9-2 lead.

Bagwell and Biggio, who took much of the blame for Houston's
past futility, silenced their critics. Biggio was 8-of-20 (.400)
with a homer and four RBI in the series. Bagwell was 7-of-22
(.318) with two homers and five RBI.

But no one was better than the newest B. Beltran was 10-of-22
(.455) with eight RBI, finishing with a two-run single in the
eighth.

"When I played in Kansas City, a lot of people didn't know who
I was," he said. "But as soon as I was traded to Houston, people
started realizing who I was."

The Astros underachieved much of the season. Phil Garner took
over as manager at the All-Star break, and Houston had to win 36 of
its last 46 games just to get the wild card.

Not a bad formula, actually. Last year, the Florida Marlins
fired their manager during the season, got into the playoffs as a
wild card and went on beat the New York Yankees in the World
Series.

"It's been an improbable season and here we are, standing in
Atlanta, which has been the 900-pound gorilla," Garner said.
"Maybe 13 was their unlucky number."

Wright gave up only 11 homers in 32 starts during the regular
season, but he couldn't keep the ball in the park during his two
postseason starts -- especially with Beltran at the plate. The
Astros outfielder went 5-for-6 with three homers against him.

Furcal had eight hits and two homers for the Braves. He had plenty
of incentive, facing a 21-day jail sentence after being arrested
for the second time on DUI charges last month.

The judge set the sentence to begin the day after the Braves'
season ended, so Furcal reports to jail Tuesday.

Game notes
The Astros shattered the NL division series record by
scoring 36 runs. The Braves set the previous mark of 27 in 1995.
... The Braves have two other nine-run losses in the postseason,
most recently a 13-4 rout by Pittsburgh in the 1992 NLCS.