"This is what is in my gut and my heart," Smoltz said. "I love this time of year. It could have easily not worked out and I could have had everybody say whatever they were going to say. But for the moment, it's a pretty darn good feeling."
So many doubted he could even come close to completing 229 2/3 innings in the regular season, and Smoltz heard all of the critics doubt his chances with a troublesome shoulder against Clemens. But in the end, he was the one standing tall after the battle between legends.
"That's vintage Smoltz," Astros manager Phil Garner said. "I've seen him better, but he was still really good tonight."
With a cranky shoulder, which has bothered him much of the past three weeks, and without a split-finger fastball or consistent slider, Smoltz found a way to limit the Astros to one run and seven hits in seven innings. He now has a Major League-record 15 career postseason wins, a mark he shared for less than 24 hours with Houston's Game 1 starter, Andy Pettitte.
"He pitched," Chipper Jones said. "He gutted it out and gave us everything he had."
After losing the first game, the Braves were confident Smoltz would find a way to emerge victorious in his battle against Clemens. He'd given them good reason to think positively by helping them win 14 of the 16 games he started following one of their losses in the regular season.
But following Wednesday's setback with a stellar performance was much more important. Just once since Division Series play began in 1995 had the Braves lost Game 1 and come back to win the series. Now they head to Houston with added confidence for Games 3 and 4.
All-time postseason wins leaders
"History doesn't bode well when you lose the first game," said Smoltz, who is 7-0 with a 2.52 ERA in 15 career Division Series appearances. "But we had a chance to change history and this team has changed a lot of people's minds before. So we might as well keep doing it."
Much of the transformation has come with the influx of youth, and the three rookies in Thursday's lineup once again proved to be difference-makers. Combined, McCann, Ryan Langerhans and Jeff Francoeur went 4-for-11 and contributed four RBIs.
But it was McCann's second-inning three-run homer off Clemens that energized the crowd, rejuvenated Smoltz and gave a 21-year-old rookie catcher something to remember forever. With his blast into the seats in right-center field, he became the first Brave to homer in his first career postseason at-bat and was able to do so in his first encounter against one of the greatest pitchers ever.
"It was a very hittable pitch," Clemens said of the 2-0 cutter. "Guys on this level, whether he's 21 or 41, are going to hit that, and he took advantage."
For Smoltz, it was exactly what he needed. The veteran hurler limited the Astros to one run, despite allowing three singles in a 25-pitch first inning. He then needed 15 more to complete the second inning.
"Roger Clemens is in a class by himself," Smoltz said. "Whether he's got his A-game or his B-game, it's pretty darn good. That home run was pretty much for me the adrenaline boost I needed to get through the rest of the game."
McCann, who was three months old when Clemens made his Major League debut, has been a boost for Smoltz since he was promoted from Double-A Mississippi in early June. He's helped the Braves go 17-2 in the 19 games he served as the veteran pitcher's catcher.
Clemens, who had won five of his previous six playoff starts, allowed five earned runs and six hits in five innings. He was also victimized by an Adam LaRoche two-out, two-run double in the third inning.
All-time postseason strikeouts leaders
|2.||Roger Clemens||185 2/3||166|
|3.||Tom Glavine||201 1/3||137|
|4.||Mike Mussina||125 1/3||134|
With an early 5-1 lead, Smoltz settled down and found a way to complete seven innings. He needed just 38 pitches to complete his final four innings. His final out was recorded in impressive fashion. Chipper Jones dove to his left, grabbed a Craig Biggio grounder and fired to first to end the seventh inning and prevent a potential RBI single.
"I told Chipper, 'You're going to have to get me through that inning,' and, golly, did he ever with that play," Smoltz said.
It was the least Jones could do for a man who has found a way to overcome every obstacle this year and give the Braves hope that this still indeed might be their year.