Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Backbreaker

Roy Oswalt left his right arm--and probably the Astros' hopes--in St. Louis. He didn't look right from the outset. His fastball didn't have the same explosiveness, and he certainly wasn't commanding it as well as he did last Wednesday. Oswalt appeared to settle down, and as the game moved through the 3rd and 4th innings, he started setting up his fastball with his breaking ball. Meanwhile, the Astros built a 4-0 lead by nickeling and dimeing Jon Garland. Oswalt completely lost in the 5th. He was all over the place, and just when he looked like he might get out of it, Jermaine Dye golfed a 3-2 breaking ball into center to cut the lead to 4-3. To me, that was the at bat that broke Oswalt. Terrific hitting by Dye to dunk that one. It was telling that on the previous at bat, Tad Iguchi hit a run-scoring single on a high fastball. Oswalt seemed conscious of this, and switched back to the breaking ball for Dye. Didn't matter. In fact, it's a testament to Oswalt's ability that he was able to escape with only 5 runs allowed, considering he left the bases loaded and gritted through one more inning after that. Was Oswalt's meltdown surprising? Not really. The warning signs were there all game, and the Tim McCarver jinx was in full effect. As soon as he mentioned the 260+ innings Oswalt threw this season, he started to lose it. Without those 260 innings, no way the Astros come close to sniffing the playoffs. Sadly, even for a warrior like Oswalt, that's a few too many. I salute him for his masterful game against St. Louis, and for his perseverance in failure against Chicago.

The White Sox, however, couldn't put the game away, not even against Houston's 4th and 5th relievers, Russ Springer and Mike Gallo. Then Ozzie Guillen almost gave the game away. Mistake the first: not bringing in Neal Cotts to start the 8th. Cotts actually is better against righties than lefties, and even if he does falter, Guillen would have had Cliff Politte, the best righthanded setup man outside of Scot Shields, in reserve. Obviously it was Guillen's plan all along to have Cotts in against Mike Lamb, which makes sense given Lamb's horrid record against lefties. But why not start the inning with Cotts, especially since that forces Lance Berkman to bat righty, where he has been decidedly worse? To top it off, Politte was the second-best pitcher in all of baseball when it came to pitching with inherited runners. Politte prevented 12.5 more runs than the average pitcher when it came to stranding inherited runners. This is all the more reason to start with Cotts and bring in Politte to face Lane.

Mistake the second: with Politte already used, Guillen brought in Dustin Hermanson instead of Bobby Jenks. Guillen claimed he hadn't lost confidence in Jenks, but this move speaks otherwise. To top it off, Hermanson hadn't pitched since September, and has an "unstable spine", which is the reason why Guillen made Jenks the closer in the first place. As Louie and Austin can attest, I uttered "I have a bad feeling about this", and lo and behold, Hermanson couldn't crack 87 on the gun, didn't have command, gave up the game-tying hit to Lane, and was lucky not to give up the game, striking out Brad Ausmus only on a questionable call. Fortunately for Guillen, Jenks showed he hasn't lost anything, and El Duque performed yet another exhilarating high wire escape job. Seems like the guy pitches better with the bases loaded. Kudos also to Luis Vizcaino and Damaso Marte, who hadn't even sniffed the postseason until tonight. These guys would probably be front-end guys on most teams; that they're the back-end on Chicago speaks volumes about the pitching staff that Kenny Williams has assembled.

For proof of this superior construction, look no further than Houston, who lost with Ezequiel Astacio, a poor scrub who had no right being in this game. Credit Geoff Blum for going down to get a decent pitch, but Astacio looked flustered from the moment he stepped on the mound. Why wasn't Roger Clemens or Brandon Backe in the game? There's not much point in saving a starter for tomorrow if you're going to be down 0-3. If I were Garner, I would have brought in one of those two guys, preferably Backe, and pitched Pettitte on 3 days rest on Wednesday. These are the kind of things you have to do in a World Series. Guillen demonstrated his willingness to use his whole pitching staff by bringing in Mark Buehrle to close it. When you lose, you want to lose with your best. By throwing Astacio over Clemens or Backe, Garner lost with his worst.

I wouldn't say that Garner lost this team the game, but he certainly didn't help. In retrospect, leaving in Oswalt to finish the 5th was the right move, if only because he was able to get through the 6th. Still, if I'm Garner, I bring in Mike Gallo to retire Pierzynski, then go Qualls in the 6th, Wheeler in the 7th/8th and Lidge in the 8th/9th. You have to win or lose with your best, and Oswalt clearly wasn't at his best. Garner also had a golden opportunity to squeeze in the winning run in the 9th inning with his two best bunters at the plate, Craig Biggio and Willy Taveras. I can understand not wanting Taveras to bunt, since he'd already blown a sacrifice attempt in the 1st inning. But see, that's where Garner pissed me off. He played for 1 run in the first inning (not surprisingly, that's all he got), but in the situation that does call for 1 run, he doesn't play it that way! I would have been very surprised if a veteran bathandler like Biggio wouldn't have been able to get down a squeeze. That the Astros only got two hits after the 3rd inning makes the decision not to squeeze stand out even more.

I lost some respect for Garner with the way he reacted to his team's failures as well. Tossing the stool after the Blum homer may have just been pure emotion, but it's no way to show support for your team. What the hell do you expect from a kid who had a near 6 ERA this season? It's your fault he's out there anyway! Garner knows his team better than I do. Maybe he knows they'll respond better if he reacts this way. From the outside though, it looks pretty bad.

At least Garner knows what his team's problem is--crappy hitting. You can't really expect to win a game when you only get 8 hits in 15 innings. That they showed patience and walked was encouraging, but you need hits to drive those guys in. After the 3rd inning, Houston only got two hits, both by Jason Lane. From inning 4 through inning 15, only one guy could manage to get a hit? Chicago didn't exactly put on a pitching clinic. The Astros simply just couldn't get it done. That's what makes this such a devastating loss for Houston. The fact that they could have won despite Oswalt's meltdown would have given them untold confidence for Game 4. Now they go in with a manager who has seemingly lost confidence in them and with their worst starter on the mound. Brandon Backe, it's up to you.

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