As I was listening to today's Braves-Astros game in the car on the way to my in-laws I heard something that I was sure was a mistake. The announcer said that Mike Gallo was coming in for the Astros to pitch the seventh inning of the tie ballgame. Then he said that the Astros had pulled a double-switch, yanking leadoff hitter Craig Biggio, who was 3-for-4 with a homer and three RBI, in favor of Jason Lane. Well, double-switches are fine and good, and can even make sense when you pull the hottest hitter in the given game. However, when all you get out of the bargain is moving the pitcher down one spot in the order, it's a bad decision.
I attributed to either an error by the announcer or too much static on the dicey AM station I was barely hearing the game on. I never thought that the truth, that the switch was made, was the actual truth until later in the game when the pitcher's spot came up.
Many will point to Phil Garner's decision to pull future Hall-of-Famer Roger Clemens after a scant five innings and 87 pitches was his biggest mistake of the game. Clemens had just completed a perfect inning on just 11 pitches, they'll say. With Clemens in, the 'Stros were winning 5-2. Without him, their pen caved giving up four runs in four innings and lost the game.
They do have a point, but Clemens was coming off three day's rest and had gotten over a stomach virus. Maybe that's the best he expected to get from the Rocket. Some will fault him with starting Clemens at all if he wasn't fully ready. Then again, five innings of Clemens may be better than seven from another pitcher.
The problem wasn't pulling Clemens; it was entrusting a three-run lead to a rookie pitcher who had pitched 16-1/3 innings in the majors prior to last month, Chad Qualls. In September and October, as the Astros were ascending to the wild card thrown, Qualls registered a 2.41 ERA, six holds, and one save. Garner had started to use Qualls in the old Brad Lidge, i.e., old Octavio Dotel role as a setup man. Garner had already called on Qualls twice in the series, once with the game tied. He just went to Qualls one too many times. His single-mindedness had caused him to bypass Dan Wheeler, who had even better stats in the second half though in a more limited role, than Qualls. There was also Dan Miceli and Russ Springer, whom Garner preferred to use in a shorter outings.
But whatever, Garner trusted the inexperienced reliever and if he had held the Braves run-less, he would have drawn comparisons to Francisco Rodriguez in 2002. I can't really fault him: he knows his personnel better than I do. I was surprised that he let the game get away from Qualls and still let him finish out the inning after hanging a fastball that Adam Laroche crushed for a three-run, upper-deck home run.
Where Garner really erred was in the Biggio double-switch and then a double-switch that never was. In the eighth, Dan Miceli relieved Gallo and gave up a one-out walk to Johnny Estrada. That brought closer Brad Lidge in to prevent the go-ahead run. I agree with the move, but Garner forgot that Lidge was due up fifth in the next inning. Lidge did his job, retiring the last two hitters without a run scoring. However, when the Astros mounted a rally in the bottom of the inning—men at first and third with two outs—Garner pinch-hit for his closer with Orlando Palmeiro who promptly grounded out to end the inning.
Then Garner turned to Russ Springer, not Wheeler, after Springer gave up three runs the previous day. Then, they decided to pitch to lefty J.D. Drew with one out and a man on second, after the runner, Rafael Furcal, stole second on the first pitch to Drew. Springer pitched better against lefties (.240/.355/.400/.755) than righties (.310/.355/.483/.838) this year, so that's why Garner allowed him to face Drew in the first place. But it also may have led Garner to believe that setting up the doubleplay with righty Marcus Giles up was not as preferable as facing Drew. I would have thought a different pitcher, given that Springer's stats (and his lengthy career) weren't great to begin with. Then even though Springer fell behind 3-1, they still threw a curveball to Drew, with which he drove in the go-ahead and eventual winning run. Garner didn't even get another pitcher up in the pen until the run had scored.
So with a complicated series of odd choices, all of which seemed to conspire against the Astros, they lost at home for the first time in twenty tries. And now the series returns to Atlanta, where Roy Oswalt will pitch on just three day's rest and now the bullpen will be overworked and demoralized. All of a sudden a huge series lead for the Astros now seems like a gaping hole.
I guess that's what happens when you have two teams that have become famous for losing in the first round. Maybe it's Bobby Cox's turn to small ball the Braves out of victory tomorrow.
By the way, the much talked about ground rule that resulted in keeping Craig Biggio's second-inning at-bat alive and led to his three-run homer, was absolutely in the Houston ground rules. Here it is.