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Smoltz, Braves ruin slim playoff hopes for Astros

Oct 1, 2006 - 8:12 PM ATLANTA (Ticker) -- John Smoltz made sure that the Houston Astros would not advance to the playoffs at the expense of the Atlanta Braves.

Smoltz threw six scoreless innings and Jeff Francoeur homered and made a sparkling defensive catch to save a run as the Braves eliminated the Astros from the postseason with a 3-1 victory in the season finale for both teams.

Atlanta (79-83), which saw its streak of winning 14 consecutive titles come to an end and will be out of the playoffs for the first time since 1990, ended its season on a positive note by ended Houston's postseason hopes.

The Astros made a late run at their third consecutive playoff appearance by winning 10 of 11 games and entered this one 1 1/2 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central.

But given the chance to eliminate the club that sent the Braves packing in the past two playoffs, a determined Smoltz and Francoeur went out and made sure that the reigning National League champions would also be sitting at home this October.

"It was a mini playoff game for us," Smoltz said. "I have respect for those guys. (But) the history of the last two years, the last two times they beat us (in the playoffs) had something to do with it."

"We wanted to knock them out," Braves center fielder Andruw Jones said. "We didn't want them to make the playoffs. We wanted to hurt them. The last two years, they've been putting us (out of the playoffs). We had nothing to lose."

The 39-year-old Smoltz (16-9) scattered six hits and struck out five in winning his fourth straight start. He also walked three in his only outing against the Astros this season.

Atlanta got on the board in the first thanks to two defensive miscues by Houston. Marcus Giles reached second on a throwing error by second baseman Chris Burke and advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt by Edgar Renteria. Chipper Jones followed with a grounder to first baseman Lance Berkman, who opted to throw home instead of stepping on the bag for an out. Giles beat the throw to put Atlanta up, 1-0.

Francoeur led off the bottom of the second, smashing a 3-2 offering from Houston starter Chris Sampson (2-1) into the left-center field bleachers for his 29th homer of the season.

"It was great to win today," Francoeur said. "I wanted to win so bad. I wanted to give Smoltz his 16th win."

Atlanta added another run in the third when Jones singled and later scored on third baseman Mike Lamb's throwing error.

"We ended on a good note," Jones said. "Nothing against Houston, I respect those guys, but they have been our nemesis the last couple of years."

Houston, which left 11 runners on base, had a handful of chances to get to Smoltz in the second, third and sixth.

In the second, the Astros squandered an opportunity with runners at second and third with no outs thanks to Francoeur. The right fielder made a nice diving grab on a liner by Humberto Quintero and got up to throw out Huff at the plate to end the frame.

"That was an unbelievable play," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "Francoeur caught the ball (diving) and got the out."

An inning later, Houston loaded the bases with two outs before Huff flew out to Francoeur to end the frame. The Astros had runners at second and third with two outs in the sixth before Smoltz struck out pinch hitter Orlando Palmeiro to end the threat.

That might have been the biggest strikeout in the game for Smoltz, who passed Frank Tanana for 19th place on the all-time strikeout list after he fanned Willy Taveras in the first. The Atlanta ace finished the season with 2,778 career strikeouts.

The Astros plated their lone run in the seventh off reliever Macay McBride. Taveras and Lamb led off the frame with successive singles and the speedy outfielder scored directly after on an RBI single by Lance Berkman. McBride struck out Luke Scott and Huff and Tyler Yates induced Burke to fly out to prevent any further damage.

"I think it's hard to handle because we had nine hits and one run," Lamb said. "We did a good job to somehow control our own fate. To come out short, it's disappointing."

"It's a tough loss, but by George, we took it to the wire," said Astros manager Phil Garner, whose club won 22 of its final 34 games to claw back into the race. "I really got to believing we were going carry this out, but I was a little disappointed and a little surprised we didn't (win) today."

Yates followed with a perfect eighth and Braves closer Bob Wickman worked a perfect ninth to record his 18th save for Atlanta.

Sampson allowed three runs, one earned, and two hits in four innings for the Astros, which finished the season 82-80.

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