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Atlanta's dreadful season comes to an end
Chipper Jones wins first NL batting title in his career
Atlanta's Chipper Jones won the NL batting title with a .364 average. - photo by TOM MIHALEK

HOUSTON- Houston's season finale belonged to Brad Ausmus.

The 39-year-old catcher hit a two-run homer in his final game with the team and the Astros finished with a 3-1 win over the Atlanta Braves on Sunday.

Ausmus caught a franchise-record 1,249 games in 10 seasons. A free agent, Ausmus has said he will retire if he can't sign with a team based closer to his home in San Diego.

After a pre-game ceremony, Ausmus added one more highlight in his first at-bat.

Jose Castillo doubled in the third inning for Houston's first hit off Mike Hampton (3-4) and Ausmus drove the next pitch into the left-field porch, his third homer of the season and first since Aug. 24.

"The home run is icing on the cake," Ausmus said. "Today ranks up there as one of the days I'll remember the rest of my life."

Wandy Rodriguez (9-7) struck out six in seven strong innings and Jose Valverde shut out the Braves in the ninth to tie a franchise record with his 44th save. Billy Wagner saved 44 games for Houston in 2003.

Chipper Jones secured his first NL batting title, walking in his only at-bat. Jones hit a career-high .364 to edge Albert Pujols and become the NL's first switch-hitting batting champion since Terry Pendleton won in his 1991 MVP season for Atlanta.

"It's a tremendous feather in the cap, from an individual standpoint," Jones said.

It was one of the only bright spots this season for the Braves, who finished 72-90 - their worst record since going 65-97 in 1990. The next year, Atlanta began its run of 14 consecutive division titles.

"We've got a good handle on what we've got and what we need," said manager Bobby Cox.

Before the game, the Astros played a tongue-in-cheek video tribute to Ausmus on the scoreboard, with playful jabs from former teammates Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell and current players Lance Berkman and Mark Loretta.

Owner Drayton McLane presented Ausmus with a red surfboard with an Astros logo before Ausmus' daughters, 10-year-old Sophie and 9-year-old Abigail, threw out the ceremonial first pitches.

"The end of the video, I was as emotional as I get," Ausmus said. "I smiled."

Hampton played for the Astros from 1994-99, including two seasons with Ausmus. The two remain close friends, so Ausmus knew what was coming when they faced each other for the first time Sunday.

"I was banking on him giving me a courtesy, first-pitch fastball," Ausmus said. "I guess I guessed right."

Hampton struck out Ausmus in the fifth.

"We've got a pretty good friendship," Hampton said. "He told me the last at-bat is the one everyone remembers. I made him look stupid on his last at-bat."

Houston manager Cecil Cooper had started pulling his starters in the top of the fifth. Before the Braves batted, Edwin Maysonet replaced Miguel Tejada at shortstop and Mark Saccomanno came in for Berkman at first base.

Berkman went down the line to embrace Ausmus before leaving the field to a standing ovation. Berkman finished with a .312 average, his fourth season over .300. He'll be one of the veterans expected to bring leadership next year with Ausmus leaving.

"It's sad and it probably won't sink in until next year when he's not there," Berkman said. "He's such a personality and such a presence in the clubhouse. He'll be missed."

Maysonet made a throwing error on Brent Lillibridge's grounder in the fifth and the Braves shortstop went to second. He advanced on Rodriguez's balk and came home on Corky Miller's groundout to make it 2-1.

Ty Wigginton beat out an infield hit in the Houston fifth. Reggie Abercrombie pinch-ran, stole second and went to third when Miller's throw skipped into center field. Rodriguez, a .103 hitter, singled to center to get his first RBI of the season and fifth of his career.

Ausmus took the field for the sixth, but J.R. Towles came out to replace him. Ausmus hoisted his helmet to acknowledge a long ovation as he walked off, then made a curtain call before disappearing into the dugout for the last time in a Houston uniform. "I was very touched," Ausmus said. "The video was hilarious, payback for all the barbs I've been throwing around this locker room for years. I really enjoyed it."

LaTroy Hawkins replaced Rodriguez for the eighth. He gave up a single to Ruben Gotay, but retired the next three batters to secure his 22nd scoreless outing in 24 appearances since Houston acquired him from the New York Yankees on July 30.

Valverde gave up a single to Kelly Johnson and walked Jones in the ninth, but Brian McCann popped out for the final out of the season.



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