He was 18-7 during the regular season, with the National League's second-best earned-run average and second-highest strikeout total. But it was almost as if Kevin Brown was an afterthought before Game 1 of the National League division series between the San Diego Padres and Houston Astros.
It was almost as if none of his own considerable credentials mattered. It was all about Randy Johnson--until it mattered most. Then it was all about Brown.
Producing one of the most dominating performances in postseason history, the Padre right-hander outpitched the Astro left-hander in a 2-1 victory Tuesday before 50,080 at the Astrodome.
Brown silenced the crowd and one of the league's most prolific offenses--the Astros were first in runs scored and second in batting--over eight shutout innings, striking out 16 while giving up only two hits.
"Other than pitching a no-hitter, he couldn't have been much better," Houston Manager Larry Dierker said.
Brown, then with the Florida Marlins, did pitch a no-hitter against the San Francisco Giants last year.
"I'll take this any time," he said. "Personal accomplishments are great, but the impact of [the playoff] situation and a win for the team far outweighs what happened in the regular season last year."
Brown walked two, hit one and gave up only a pair of singles to Brad Ausmus. Derek Bell, Jeff Bagwell and Moises Alou, who each drove in more than 100 runs in the middle of the Astro lineup, went 0 for 11 with six strikeouts during Brown's tenure.
Said Johnson, who pitched well enough to win but not well enough to beat Brown, "Some of his pitches seemed to defy gravity."
San Diego General Manager Kevin Towers, who traded for Brown, believing he would provide the rotation with playoff caliber leadership, suggested this loss might be enough to deflate the Astros.
"We still have to win two games [in the best-of-five series], but if you're the Astros, you're banking on a win from Randy Johnson, especially considering how well he's pitched in the Astrodome," Towers said.
"I don't think anybody gave us a chance to win this game, and maybe that was a little incentive for Kevin and the team. Reading and listening nationally, we weren't given much of a chance in the series. We didn't play well in September, so psychologically, this was huge--maybe for both teams."
Brown seldom needs incentive. He is combative and competitive.
"He's torn up a few lockers and laundry carts, but I consider that an attribute," Towers said. "I feel he can throw a no-hitter every time."
Perhaps, but Brown said he couldn't get wrapped up in the matchup with Johnson.
"Obviously, when you're going against Randy you know it's going to be a low-scoring game and that you have to concentrate on every pitch," Brown said. "But I'm not pitching against Randy. I'm pitching against the Houston hitters."
Johnson, who was 10-1 since his acquisition by the Astros and 5-0 in the Astrodome with four shutouts, gave up nine hits and struck out nine in eight innings. A leadoff double by Tony Gwynn in the sixth, followed by Greg Vaughn's infield hit and a broken-bat bloop by Ken Caminiti, led to the first run on a sacrifice fly by Jim Leyritz. Vaughn, who had 50 homers in an MVP-caliber season overshadowed by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, opened the eighth with a towering homer, his third hit.
A leadoff double by Bill Spiers off Trevor Hoffman in the ninth and a throwing error by Caminiti on an infield single by Alou cut the deficit to 2-1, but Hoffman ultimately got Carl Everett on a fly to center for the final out, stranding Alou.
"The object is to win the game," Brown said of Manager Bruce Bochy's decision to bring in Hoffman, who tied a league record with 53 saves during the regular season. "My pitch count  was getting up there and Hoffy is the best in the business and coming in fresh. How can I question Boch's move?"
Brown made the Astros look foolish at times with a forkball he developed this year.
"He's always been good against us, but this was the most dominant I've seen him, and that was the difference," Dierker said. "Randy had good stuff but not his best stuff. Brown had his best stuff."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Brown Very Striking
Most strikeouts in a postseason game:
* 17: Bob Gibson, St. Louis vs. Detroit, Oct. 2, 1968 (WS).
* 16: Kevin Brown, San Diego at Houston, Sept. 29, 1998 (division series).
* 15: Sandy Koufax, Dodgers at N.Y. Yankees, Oct. 2, 1963 (WS).
* 15: Mike Mussina, Baltimore at Cleveland, Oct. 11, 1997 (ALCS).
* 15: Livan Hernandez, Florida vs. Atlanta, Oct. 12, 1997 (NLCS).
San Diego: 2
Chicago at Atlanta
1 p.m., ESPN