In '04, Astros arrived with NLDS win vs. ATL

2021 World Series foes have long history as postseason opponents

October 26th, 2021

HOUSTON -- A generation ago, the Astros’ postseasons were remembered for three things: they were short, they were unsuccessful and they always -- well, almost always -- played against the Braves.

This year, Houston will have to take down Atlanta to win the World Series. But when the Astros were in the National League, the two teams regularly met in the Division Series.

Houston's highlights were, shall we say, scarce.

Here’s a breakdown of the Astros’ late 1990s-early 2000s Division Series appearances: 0-3 vs. the Braves in ’97; 1-3 vs. the Padres in ’98; 1-3 vs. the Braves in ’99; and 0-3 vs. the Braves in '01.

At some point, the sentiments before and after the series started sounding the same.

The Braves, again?

And then ...

The Braves. Again.

So when the Astros finally broke through and beat those same Braves in the Division Series in 2004, the celebration was two-fold. It was the first postseason series win in the history of the franchise, a huge turn of events on its own, and it was the first hurdle in a pennant race that ended with a Game 7 loss to the Cardinals in the NL Championship Series.

But perhaps more significantly, that historic first postseason series win was against the Braves -- those annoying, pesky, ridiculously good Braves.

Finally, the stigma began to fade, especially for Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, who -- fairly or not -- carried the brunt of most of those past postseason shortcomings.

“A win is a win, and a celebration is a celebration,” Bagwell said. “But for Craig and I, because we'd been there the longest, it was like, ‘We finally beat these freaking guys.’”

John Smoltz was one of those guys. As the Braves’ closer, he watched the 2004 celebration from the bullpen and, through his disappointment, he still appreciated what this meant for the two most famous Astros players.

Smoltz did not need a history lesson on how often and effectively Atlanta had crushed Houston year after year. He was there for all of it. As a pitcher on a Hall of Fame trajectory, he was a large reason that it happened.

But Smoltz found himself, in those immediate minutes following Game 5 of the '04 NLDS, happy for Bagwell and Biggio -- so much that he wanted to let them know in person.

“You kind of knew what they were having to deal with on their end,” Smoltz said. “The questions every year.”

October clubhouse celebrations are chaotic. Music blares. Champagne flies. People scream. Players dance.

Away from all of that, on this night in 2004, Smoltz managed to avoid the commotion and cameras. He walked from the Braves’ clubhouse over to the Astros’, slipped into a room adjacent to the clubhouse and met with Bagwell and Biggio to wish them well.

“Since it was in Atlanta, I could go over and wish them the best and hope that it was their turn,” Smoltz said. “I’m a competitor. I want to win more than anybody. But I also like it when people do it the right way and compete the right way. To me, that was an honor to go over there and say, ‘You guys beat us, and congrats.’”

Today, this kind of exchange might be done over texting, if it happens at all. Perhaps a phone call would be made later. It’s rare when opposing players meet in person, especially when a loss is still so new and raw for one side.

“When Smoltz does it, it's because -- ‘We’ve beaten the [stuff] out of you for how many years?'” Bagwell said, laughing. “And finally -- ‘You made it.’ It was big to get by them.”

“It's like playing with your big brother, and then you’re finally able to beat your big brother,” Biggio said. “It was a big deal.”

Game 5 was a 12-3 blowout, so there wasn’t much intrigue when the final few innings rolled around. That gave Smoltz a little time for reflection. He badly wanted to be a part of every game, but with such a large deficit, he knew he wouldn’t be called on.

Smoltz was more accustomed to facing Bagwell and Biggio in a starting role in October, so this was different for him. The Braves not needing him meant something good was going to be happening to the other team. Smoltz could appreciate that part, even through the letdown of a loss.

That’s why Smoltz was moved to say something that night.

“I remember walking in there and congratulating them and hoping that they could do something,” Smoltz said. “It was like a classic matchup, and they got theirs.

“I’ve always said I don’t mind facing any right-hander, period. But those right-handers always presented some issues. There was just a lot of history between us. We battled. And it was their turn.”