| ||It was a slugfest, and it was a pitcher's duel.|
It looked like a romp, then looked like a tautly drawn classic. And just when it began to look sloppy, it reminded you that, in fact, it was a game like no other.
It was a game that became almost agonizing to follow in its suspense, but good portions of it were as easy to watch as any other blowout loss.
The hero after seven innings was the goat after eighteen.
The best move the winning manager made may have been the one he didn't actually make, and his worst move would be one that would win the game eight innings later.
Baseball games are not literature, they're not a novel. When masterpieces like the one played October 9, 2005 are finished, there's no creator to put the coda on affairs, no author to title it in a fashion that would most elegantly sum matters up. No baseball game will ever be called War and Peace, or The Magic Mountain, or even The Natural.
Some games deserve better, and this was one of them. But in the absence of anything bestowed by a laureate and dripping with gravitas, "The Chris Burke Game" will just have to do.
Certainly Chris Burke isn't complaining.
Nor, considering the way things turned out, is Brandon Backe. The energetic pitcher from Galveston always draws from a wellspring of emotion when he pitches, and it was no different to begin the Chris Burke Game. Backe was his usual hyperactive self during his first two--mostly effective--innings.
But some point during the third inning, the primary emotion upon which he drew transformed from giddiness to fear.
After getting the lead runner Rafael Furcal for the second out of that third inning on a fielder's choice off the bat of Marcus Giles, and without even throwing over to keep Giles at bay, Backe threw a ball and a strike to Larry Jones.
Rick Sutcliffe, in the booth as a color guy for ESPN, would in retrospect find a good deal of fault with the pitchout that we can only assume Phil Garner then called.
But watching at home, it didn't take me as long: I had a very bad feeling about the pitchout as soon as it happened.
When Backe struggles, it is always his control that departs first. And the walk to Furcal had kind of served notice that Backe had started to scuffle with his command demons. Why Garner would then choose to move the count in favor of the opponent's second most dangerous hitter is beyond me.
Certainly Giles, while capable of stealing a base, does not possess game-changing speed, and it is possible to imagine Ausmus throwing Giles out in a straight steal situation.
Perhaps if Backe had come back to even the count at 2 - 2, things could've been different. But Backe went to 3 - 1 on the elder Jones, and the inning took on a much different timbre after that. LaRoche's slam--though it never felt inevitable--did give the inning a certain logical consistency.
As much as LaRoche's grand slam changed the course of the game, his lack of effort in the seventh inning prevented the Atlanta Braves from sealing the deal. After singling, LaRoche was clearly lackadaisical in going from first to third on Francouer's double, and I'm sure was as surprised as anybody when Braves third base coach Fredi Gonzalez waved him around third and sent him home. Berkman was about as efficient as you can be in retrievng the ball from the Crawfish corner, and he was able to hit the cutoff man Everett to keep the play at the plate alive. LaRoche had started to hustle by the time Everett launched his relay throw, but it was too late: Ausmus had time to get low, and LaRoche was out.
So many things had to go right for the Astros to nail the Braves' first baseman there. Berkman, Everett and Ausmus--even with LaRoche in first gear--had almost no margin for error, and LaRoche was probably out by two steps. Had he been running hard the whole way, there's little doubt he would have picked up at least those two steps, and therefore been safe at the plate.
And there's no question that a seventh run for the Braves would have finished off the Astros--and in nine innings, too. With an extra run, it's likely that Cox would have tried to get Hudson through the eighth, and it's even more certain that Hudson wouldn't have walked Luke Scott. And down by six, Berkman may have been a little less aggressive with a 2 - 1 count, maybe looking for the RBI walk to set up Ensberg. And even had the Astros gotten the four runs in the eighth, it's hard to reimagine the ninth where the Astros get two.
It's ironic that the same man who put the Braves in such good shape to win early, was the one who ended up costing them the game late, but there it is.
After Berkman had nailed the Crawford Boxes with three aboard in the eighth, Morgan Ensberg and Mike Lamb each took shots at tying it. Mike Lamb came really close, but his fly to right landed about five feet short of the wall, in Francouer's glove. |
It was at that point, as Francouer jogged in, that people first began to visualize Jeff Bagwell in a pinch-hitting role in the ninth inning. Rick Sutcliffe even thought Backe was talking to Bagwell's bat, to get it ready or something. And when Lane grounded to third, and Vizcaino struck out looking, most people, including Dave O'Brien and Rick Sutcliffe and myself, assumed that Bagwell would be pinch-hitting for Brad Ausmus.
But Garner, perhaps thinking about the position he might be put in, having to use his backup catcher in the extras he hoped they'd play, or maybe just figuring Ausmus was the hotter offensive player, stayed with the Astros' first string catcher to face Farnsworth, and you gotta say, rarely has a counterintuitive move payed off so well. Allowing Ausmus to stay in and hit the fortunate home run just above the yellow line is a move that Garner didn't make, on a day when he made a ton, and may in the end have been his best decision.
Knowing what we know now, it's pretty easy to say that with nobody on and two out in the bottom of the tenth, the worst thing that Lance Berkman could have done was what he did: double to left center. Berkman had been the best hitter on the team since Ensberg got hit in the hand September 5, and if he had grounded out, or struck out, he could have taken his shots in the thirteenth and the sixteenth. Obviously, Garner had no way of knowing that the game would end up going two innings longer than any previous playoff game.
With the still-hobbled Berkman at second, with the Braves almost guaranteed to walk Ensberg, and with his ace in the hole, Bagwell, unlikely to homer, pinch-running for Berkman was a move that Garner couldn't afford not to make.
Still, removing his best hitter from a tie game with two outs in the inning is a move that can be second-guessed no matter the circumstances, and the fact that it was the pinch-runner who ended it eight innings later is a stroke of good fortune some might say Garner did not deserve.
But if you can question Garner's decision-making in the tenth, it's a lot easier to criticize Atlanta manager Bobby Cox in the fourteenth. After a leadoff walk from Houston reliever Dan Wheeler to Andruw Jones, Julio Franco was able to reach on a bunt up the first bse line that rather hamstrung the Astros' setup man. Wheeler charged the ball, but then decided he'd best let it roll foul--by which point the ball had already hit his shoe. Franco had already crossed first base, and the Braves--due to exactly the kind of freak occurence that you figured would settle such a tight game--had runners on first and second with nobody out.
Although the WPA software maintains that the Francouer sacrifice that followed affected the Braves' chance of winning only very slightly, any Astro fan watching would tell you otherwise. By the fourteenth, it had become almost self-evident that the game was going to be decided by a single fluky run, and now the Bravos had a man on third with only one out. Ryan Langerhans--two for four coming into the at bat--was intentionally walked in the hopes that the catcher McCann to follow might ground into a double play. Certainly Andruw Jones at third was aware that the suicide squeeze might be in order, and either on his own or upon instructions from the Braves' dugout, he spent a good portion of McCann's at bat teasing and bluffing the sprint in from third.
But for whatever reason, the squeeze was never put on. When Wheeler threw a first pitch ball, I was sure that the play would be put on. But McCann looked at a strike. Well then, certainly they'd squeeze on the 1 - 1, I thought, but again I was wrong: McCann swung away, foul. And by then Wheeler had the advantage, and he could afford to waste a pitch, just in case the Braves had been crazy enough to run it with two strikes.
After that, McCann just looked defeated, and the swinging strikeout felt like this giant exhalation after you'd held your breath for four minutes.
Even though, technically, Wheeler still had to retire the pinch-hitter Orr.
Which he of course did.
Bobby Cox seemed to be managing as if it were the fifth inning, not the fourteenth. If he was so willing to give up an out to get his guy from second to third, why did he show such reluctance to give up an out getting the guy home? Certainly it's possible that McCann could miss the ball with the play on. But the fact that he could miss the ball--three times--is why the play should have been on.
|Rafael Furcal, ss||6||0||0||0|
|Marcus Giles, 2b||7||2||1||0|
|Larry Jones, cf||6||1||1||0 |
|Andruw Jones, cf||6||1||1||1 |
|Adam LaRoche, 1b||4||1||2||4|
|Julio Franco, 1b (8)||5||0||1||0 |
|Jeff Francouer, rf||7||0||1||0 |
|Ryan Langerhans, lf||5||0||2||0|
|Brian McCann, c||8||1||1||1 |
|Tim Hudson, p||4||0||2||0 |
|Kyle Farnsworth, p (8)||0||0||0||0|
|Kelly Johnson, ph (10)||1||0||0||0|
|Chris Reitsma, p (10)||0||0||0||0|
|Wilson Betemit, ph (12)||1||0||0||0 |
|John Thomson, p (12)||0||0||0||0|
|Pete Orr, ph (14)||1||0||0||0|
|Jim Brower, p (14)||0||0||0||0 |
|Brian Jordan, ph (17)||1||0||1||0|
|Joey Devine, p (17)||0||0||0||0|
| || |
|Craig Biggio, 2b ||7||1||0||0|
|Willy Taveras, cf ||3||0||0||0|
|Luke Scott, ph-lf (8)||2||1||0||0 |
|Dan Wheeler, p (13)||0||0||0||0|
|Roger Clemens, ph-p (15)||1||0||0||0 |
|Lance Berkman, lf ||5||1||2||4 |
|Chris Burke, pr-cf-lf (10) ||2||1||1||1|
|Morgan Ensberg, 3b ||6||0||0||0 |
|Mike Lamb, 1b||4||0||2||0|
|Chad Qualls, p (9)||0||0||0||0|
|Jeff Bagwell, ph (10)||1||0||0||0|
|Brad Lidge, p (11)||0||0||0||0 |
|Raul Chavez, c-1b (13)||1||0||0||0|
|Jason Lane, rf||7||1||1||0|
|Adam Everett, ss||3||0||1||0 |
|Wandy Rodriguez, p (8)||0||0||0||0|
|Jose Vizcaino, ss-1b-ss (9)||4||0||0||0|
|Brad Ausmus, c-1b-c||6||1||2||1|
|Brandon Backe, p||1||0||0||0|
|Mike Gallo, p (5)||0||0||0||0|
|Orlando Palmeiro, p (5)||0||0||0||1|
|Russ Springer, p (6) ||0||0||0||1|
|Eric Bruntlett, ss-cf-ss-cf (8)||0||0||0||1|
| || |