Ausmus goes out with a bang

HOUSTON 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 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.

But the day belonged to the 39-year-old Ausmus, who 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.

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.

Ausmus saved his own highlight for 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 Astros' starters took the field for the fifth, but 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.

Maysonet promptly made a throwing error on Brent Lillibridge's grounder 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.

Jeff Bennett relieved Hampton for the Houston seventh. Hampton allowed four hits and struck out five.

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.

Notes: Ausmus is Houston's career leader in games caught (1,249) and ranks ninth all-time (1,887). ... Johnson recorded hits in 24 of 25 games in September. He had a 22-game hitting streak snapped on Friday. ... Houston went 42-24 after the All-Star break. ... The Braves finished with their worst record since the 1990 squad went 65-97.

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