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Astros still looking for luck against Braves

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HOUSTON (AP) _ Billy Wagner usually enters a game to close the ninth inning. Maybe Houston manager Larry Dierker should have waited a little longer this time, too.

When the Atlanta Braves tied the score in the eighth inning, Wagner came in early, and Chipper Jones, 0-for-8 against Wagner for his career, delivered a three-run homer that keyed a 7-4 victory over the Astros on Tuesday.

The Braves took a 1-0 lead in their best-of-five series, and the Astros were in a familiar position in the playoffs, trailing the Braves.

``I was ready, I just didn't do my job,'' Wagner said. ``It was a perfect pitch, for him, but it didn't sound like he hit it as well. It didn't sound good coming off the end of the bat.''

Jones knew what to expect from his nemesis.

``Billy's one of those guys who comes out of the bullpen firing,'' Jones said. ``He throws upper 90s, 100s sometimes. You'd be stupid to look for anything else. He's a guy who just rears back and says 'Here it is, hit it if you can.'''

This time, Jones hit the ball over the left-field fence, sending the Astros to another disappointing playoff loss. They are 0-6 in playoff series and were eliminated from the playoffs by Atlanta in 1997 and 1999.

They also have seven straight blown saves in the playoffs.

Wade Miller left the game with the Astros ahead after seven strong innings.

``This was one game we felt we really needed to get, especially after we went up 3-2,'' Miller said. ``We felt we let this one get away from us bigtime.''

With a strong bullpen ready, the Astros felt secure going into the final innings.

``We were comfortable with a 3-2 lead, but not like sitting back on our haunches,'' said Brad Ausmus, who homered for Houston. ``We felt with our bullpen we could hold that lead. We didn't get it done.''

The way the Braves came back to beat the Astros seemed almost like fate, but not to the Astros.

``We should have won that game,'' Wagner said. ``I came in and gave up that one pitch. But we've been in games like this before. We can come back and win tomorrow.''

Atlanta swept the Astros 3-0 in 1997 and won the 1999 divisional series 3-1.

The game was close until the eighth. With one out and a runner on second, Marcus Giles singled off Mike Jackson just out of the reach of diving second baseman Craig Biggio, tying the game at 3.

Astros manager Larry Dierker bristled when questioned about bringing in Jackson instead of Octavio Dotel.

``If I said I put in Dotel, you'd say 'Why not Mike Jackson?''' Dierker snapped. ``Check the record.''

Shortstop Julio Lugo bobbled a potential double-play grounder by Julio Franco for an error. Wagner then came in, and Jones sent a slightly misplaced fastball over the fence.

``All the guys were very supportive,'' Lugo said. ``These things happen. Maybe tomorrow I will make a good play and we'll win the game. I'm not going to put my head down.''

The Astros agreed Game 2 on Wednesday will be the key to the series.

``It would be tough to go to Atlanta 0-2,'' Ausmus said. ``We wouldn't be mathematically out of it. We could win three in a row, but that would be tough to do in Atlanta.''

Wagner also is ready to forget Game 1.

``If the phone rings tomorrow, I'll be ready,'' he said.
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