The Astros finally beat the Braves, 12-3, tonight to advance to the NL Championship Series. Much will be made of the Astros winning their first series, but c'mon, someone had to win this series and both of these teams were famous for first-round hooks.
Much will also be made (and has been made) of former Astro third baseman Ken Caminiti's unexpected death last night at the age of 41. Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell were both long-time teammates of Caminiti, but few others on the current roster had even any contact with Caminiti and that was in his second, abbreviated tour in Houston in 1999-2000 (they are Lance Berkman, Raul Chavez, Morgan Ensberg, and Wade Miller). I am saddened by Caminiti's passing for a number of reasons: 1) he was a joy to watch on the field, giving his all on every play, 2) his death will stir up the steroid bugbear, and 3) he was a perennial on my rotisserie team mainly because he was the only player in baseball history whose name bore even a passing resemblance to "Carminati". By the way, MLB seemingly used its newfound clout in DC to rush some porkbelly legislation on steroids through the Senate the day after Caminiti's death. Any connection?
Anyway, back to the game. They game was as odd as the series. A man was hit by a batted ball for the second time in the series. This time it was Rafael Furcal, who was hit by a J.D. Drew bullet up the middle, which ended up somehow being scored a hit (though I'm not sure how). The managers stuck with pitchers for too long and pulled odd double-switches. But luckily for the Astros, their superior talent up and down the lineup and on the pitching staff finally came to bear in simply overwhelming the Braves. All this came amid commercials for the Yankee-Red Sox series (that Jeanne Zelasko did a great running series on the history of the Red Sox-Yankee rivalry. Apparently, it goes all the way back to when the Yankees picked up A-Rod. You just can't get this sort of coverage anywhere else).
The game was close (4-2 Astros) until the seventh, but the were some odd calls earlier. Leading 3-0, Roy Oswalt was up in the fifth with one out and the catcher, Raul Chavez, on first. Oswalt was called on to bunt as everyone in the house knew would happen, he laid down a decent bunt, but Adam LaRoche wisely held Chavez at first and then was able to nab Chavez at first. That left Oswalt, who was already tired, on first with two out and he had to run out a ground out by the next batter, Biggio. Oswalt showed his fatigue in the next half inning, but more on that later.
Why not have the runner go on the pitch? Who cares if he gets thrown out? The worst case scenario would be a) your pitcher would have to stand there and watch three pitches wiz by as he saved his energy, b) you would still be up 3-0, and c) you'd have the top of the order coming up in the next inning. The best case is that the bunt is successful, and your pitcher can take a sit and relax while you try to lengthen the lead. My point is that the most valued resource at this point was Oswalt's arm. I don't like the idea of playing fast and loose with outs in a relatively close game, but the most important thing was to keep Oswalt in the game for as long as possible. The worst way to do that is to get him on base, which is what the bunt did even though it was a good one. Anyway, back to Oswalt's fatigue.
Oswalt, who had been able to get by by located his curve and fastball even though the Braves reached in each of the first four innings, started to lose control in the bottom of the fifth. He gave up a leadoff home run to Rafael Furcal and a two-out homer to Johnny Estrada along with some long fly outs by Chipper Jones and Adam LaRoche and a sloppy walk to Andruw Jones. However, Phil Garner did not get a reliever up in the pen until the Chipper Jones' flyout for the second out.
Oswalt could locate neither his fastball nor curve. The curve was constantly in the dirt and the fastball was getting way too much plate. The four-seamer still had some pop but he almost hit Andruw Jones with it. And even Garner should have known to pull him against the left-hander (LaRoche) when the score was 3-2, two outs, and a man on first. But he was able to get LaRoche to get under a fly ball to Carlos Beltran in front of the warning track.
Beltran got one of the runs back in the top of the sixth with his second homer of the game (4-2 Astros). And I have to hand it to Garner for brining in Chad Qualls after he gave up the three runs yesterday in almost the same exact situation. He believes in the guy and stuck with him, for which he was rewarded with a perfect inning from Qualls.
Next, came the five-run Astro seventh which seemingly put the game out of reach. The Braves pulled Kevin Gryboski, who had replaced starter Jaret Wright after he gave up the second Beltran home run and a one-out walk to Berkman, for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the sixth. Chris Reitsma relieved Gryboski and after a leadoff single seemed to get out of trouble. With Jose Vizcaino on first and none out, Chavez sacrificed him to second, a choice that looks laughable when one considers that the 'Stros were about to score five runs in the inning. Then Qualls was rewarded for his perfect inning by being pinch-hit for by Mike Lamb, who promptly popped out in foul territory.
It looked like Garner had smallballed them out of the inning and then Craig Biggio unexpectedly singled to right. J.D. Drew short-hopped the catch and came up firing to home. Vizcaino and the ball came in at the same time, but the throw was off line. Vizcaino scored, the ball got away from Estrada, and Biggio wisely moved up all the way to third. It was an error on Drew, and one would say it was an unwise throw by Drew but a good one may have gotten the runner. I'm surprised it wasn't cut off. Letting Biggio go all the way to third was inexcusable.
Then with Beltran up batting left, the count went to 3-1, and then Reitsma grooved one that Beltran hit to right, scoring Biggio (6-2 Astros). I would have pulled Reitsma in favor of a lefty to force Beltran to bat right-handed. I certainly would not have let him pitch to Bagwell, who homered to left-center to run the score to 8-2.
Then Cox finally pulled Reitsma in favor of the left-hander Tom Martin (who should have come in for Beltran). Berkman doubled on Martin's first pitch. Jeff Kent then fouled off five pitches before singling Berkman in for the fifth run of the inning, all with two outs (9-2 Astros). Kent was caught trying to stretch the hit to a double.
The Braves got one run back in the bottom of the inning (9-3 Astros). With Ensberg up, Martin was pulled in favor of Juan Cruz, a right-hander. Again, his first pitch resulted in a double. Again, the next two men made outs and the runner moved up (to third). Jason Lane pinch-hit for Chavez and reached when a tough dribbler with lots of spin was dropped by Chipper Jones at third for a tough error (10-3).
Then the flood gates opened. Biggio doubled (11-3). And yet Cox left Cruz in. Beltran singled in Biggio (12-3).
This is the deciding game, remember? Cox still left Cruz in.
Finally, after he walked Bagwell after starting 1-2, and then Cox turned to Paul Byrd. To compound the slow hook, Cox decided to pull a double-switch. He brought in Eddie Perez to catch and bat ninth. Byrd would bat fourth. Yeah, the Braves are down by nine and have just nine outs to catch up, and Cox pulls his cleanup hitter. I know that the Braves don't really have a cleanup hitter, but one would assume that Estrada was there for some reason. If Bowa had pulled Jim Thome in a similar situation, he'd have been eviscerated, but then again, Bowa didn't know how to double-switch. And what do you get for a lost cleanup hitter, the opportunity for Byrd to pitch another inning.
Byrd got the next hitter, and the cleanup spot never came up again, but Cox didn't manage to the situation.
Anyway, the Astros advance to meet the Cardinals on Wednesday. Both staffs are pretty badly beaten up. Woody Williams will probably open the series again for the Cardinals. He was good in the DS but wasn't great in the regular season. Jeff Suppan pitched well yesterday, but probably won't go until game three, which means he faces Roger Clemens. Matt Morris and Jason Marquis looked pretty bad in the NLDS and Chris Carpenter is done.
The Astros have concerns with Brandon Backe's inexperience (though he pitched well in game 3) and with whoever is the #4. Andy Pettitte and Wade Miller are done for the year. I guess Pete Munro is the guy: he's the only other starter on the playoff roster. They could reactivate Darren Oliver, but he only started two games for Houston. Not great options, especially if the number four starter has to go twice.