The two future Hall of Famers, facing each other in postseason play for the first time in six years, had history on their side as they prepared for what was sure to be a classic duel. But there was one problem, from a Houston Astros perspective -- Clemens wasn't that good. Smoltz was. And after a 7-1 Braves win on Thursday, the Division Series is tied at 1.
The Astros knew if they were going to get to Smoltz, who hadn't pitched in nearly two weeks because of a sore shoulder, they would have to strike early. They did that much, plating one run in the first inning when Jason Lane's hit to left drove in Lance Berkman from second.
But they could have had more, considering they logged three hits in the inning. That hope ended when Smoltz intentionally walked Orlando Palmeiro to load the bases for Adam Everett, who struck out to end the frame.
"It looked like we might do something," manager Phil Garner said. "Clearly, we had a chance. A big hit would have put a few more runs up there. We didn't get it, and [Smoltz] got a little bit stronger. We gave him some short innings after that."
Smoltz threw 25 pitches in the first frame, but 50 over the next four. The Astros managed three hits in that span, and no one moved into scoring position until Chris Burke knocked a two-out pinch-hit double in the seventh.
"The further along he gets in a game, the more dominant he gets," Everett said of Smoltz, whose 15 postseason wins is a Major League record. "He's got pinpoint control, and you have to take advantage of any chances."
"He's not going to walk too many guys, so you have to be aggressive up there," Lane said. "He was throwing pitches to hit, we just weren't able to string hits together tonight. He wasn't going to beat himself. That's what makes him so great. He makes you beat him and he throws strikes, and when he gets ahead, he starts firing and puts some guys away."
Smoltz called the first inning his "biggest test," and when he saw he was going to be OK, even after the long layoff, he relaxed.
"[The shoulder] was good enough," he said. "I wasn't worried about my control. I was more concerned that my other pitches weren't going to be as sharp. But when you're given three runs that early against Roger Clemens in [rainy] conditions like this, it's huge."
The Braves took the lead for good in the second frame when Brian McCann, the No. 8 hitter, launched a three-run homer off Clemens. The intent was to offer a fastball down and away, but it caught too much of the plate and the rookie catcher knocked it far into the right-field stands.
"With two outs and [the count] was 2-0 and we knew Smoltz was on deck ... we were just trying to throw a fastball down and away, and I think it just kind of cut a little bit," catcher Brad Ausmus said. "It came back in the middle a little more than we wanted it to.
"Even if it's a bad pitch, the guy still has to put a good swing on it. And he did."
Said Clemens: "You can't afford to make a mistake there. It was a fastball down and away and it cut back over the zone. It's just a very hittable pitch. The pitcher's on deck. You don't want to give them that momentum.
"Guys on this level, whether he's 21 or 41, are going to hit that. He took advantage of it. I've given up some home runs in my career, but it was probably pretty exciting for that kid. I know the crowd definitely got into it, and that's what you want to keep away from when you're pitching on the road."
Clemens yielded two runs in the third. With two outs, he walked Chipper Jones and yielded a base hit to Andruw Jones. Both runners scored when Adam LaRoche's double dropped in front of a diving Palmeiro and skidded several feet behind the left fielder.
"We could have certainly scored a couple more runs and made it interesting," Lane said. "It wasn't like [Clemens] didn't give us a chance. They scored five. We had some chances -- we could have driven a few more guys in. It could have been a one-, two-run game. Once Smoltz comes out, we could have had a shot."
The Astros are used to leaving Atlanta with a split. They did the same last year and won the Division Series in five games, and they were generally upbeat about what awaits them at Minute Maid Park.
"We're in the same spot as we were last year when we left here," Lane said. "We have two at home and we're playing in front of our crowd. We said we'd be happy with a split here. We've got Roy [Oswalt] going Saturday, and we've got our fans. We feel good about it."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.