Wright bounces back from lows

ATLANTA -- Jaret Wright couldn't get much lower: Waived by a last-place team, he stood outside Houston's Minute Maid Park with his luggage stacked beside him, waiting for a cab that would take him to the airport.

As it turned out, things were starting to look up.

Wright was claimed by the Atlanta Braves, who remembered when he was a 21-year-old phenom starting the deciding game of the 1997 World Series, before injuries sent his career into a tailspin.

Just over a year later, Wright has come full circle. The
right-hander will start Game 1 of the NL playoffs against Roger Clemens and the Houston Astros.

"It happened a lot quicker than I thought it would," Wright
said Tuesday on the eve of the opening game at Turner Field.

Wright pitched well enough over the final month last season to
earn a spot on the playoff roster as a reliever. Heading into
spring training, he asked for a chance to start again and claimed
the final spot in the rotation.

As the season went along, it became clear that Wright was
Atlanta's best starter. He finished 15-8 with a 3.28 ERA -- moving
to the top of the rotation in the best-of-five division series.

He'll go against a future Hall of Famer on Wednesday.

The 42-year-old Clemens, who called off retirement to pitch for
the Astros, had another remarkable season (18-4, 2.98) and is one
of the leading contenders for the NL Cy Young award.

"He's done a lot of stuff in the game that's amazing," Wright
said. "To have my name called in Game 1 and go up against him,
it's an honor. I'm up for it. He's going to battle. I'm going to
battle just as hard."

Clemens couldn't pitch the final game of the regular season when stricken by a stomach virus.

The Astros won anyway, capping a remarkable run (36-10) over the final seven weeks that was good enough to claim the wild card by
one game over San Francisco.

Now, Clemens is available to start the playoffs. He threw some
with his oldest son on Monday, felt better on Tuesday and knows
he'll be well enough to pitch Game 1.

"However I feel, I'm going to make the most of it," Clemens
said after the Astros arrived at Turner Field for an afternoon
workout. "I've pitched with different aches and pains throughout
the years."

The Astros seem to have a huge advantage on the mound for the
opener. Clemens is a six-time Cy Young winner with 328 wins on his
resume. Wright's career record is just 52-45.

Then again, the 28-year-old right-hander knows a thing or two
about pitching in pressure situations. As a rookie for the
Cleveland Indians in 1997, Wright beat the New York Yankees twice
in the division series and was the second-youngest pitcher ever to
start to start Game 7 of the World Series.

He shut out the Florida Marlins for six innings, but came out
after giving up a homer to Bobby Bonilla that cut Cleveland's lead
to 2-1. Wright watched in dismay as Cleveland's bullpen gave up the
tying run in the ninth, then the series-deciding run in the 11th.

Wright rarely tunes in for replays of that painful loss.

"I've caught glimpses of it," he said. "It's kind of a weird
feeling. You get butterflies a little bit all over again watching
it. I probably would have watched it 50 times over if we had won."

Then came the injuries. After two shoulder operations and seven
stints on the disabled list, the Indians gave up on Wright. He
signed with San Diego before last season but went 1-4 with an 8.74
ERA in a mop-up role. By late August, the Padres threw in the
towel, too.

The team was in Houston -- of all places -- when the Braves
claimed Wright off waivers.

"When he joined our ballclub, we gave him one inning at a time
in important situations," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "And he
pitched well for us right away."

Wright had been obsessed with proving he still had the same zip
on his pitches after all the injuries. Cox and pitching coach Leo
Mazzone were more concerned with where the pitches went than what
they registered on the radar gun.

"My arm felt good. It was just location," Wright said. "The
biggest thing we worked on when I got over here was throwing it to
where you wanted it, instead of throwing 110 percent and not
knowing where it's going."

Wright's teammates say he's a better pitcher now than he was
before all the injuries.

"When there's an injury to a pitcher, it makes him learn how to
pitch," Chipper Jones said.

"He was so young in 1997. He was a fire-balling flame-thrower
who just reared back and said, 'Here it comes.' He's learned to
move it around. He can change speeds a little better. In the long
run, that makes him a better pitcher as opposed to a thrower."