Playing in the Rain

Wow.

I don’t see how a game can get much better than last night’s, and that’s coming from a Twins fan who has suddenly become an Astros fan for this series. Comebacks and controversy, questionable managerial moves and extreme weather, unlikely goats and unlikelier heroes—Chicago’s 7-6 win over Houston had just about everything. Let’s start with a look at Astros manager Phil Garner‘s iffy decisions, because while they will almost certainly be forgotten when the story of Game 2 is told, there were plenty.

With Brad Ausmus on at second base after doubling with none out in the fifth inning, Garner called for Adam Everett to bunt. Everett fouled off his first attempt and then Garner surprisingly called off the bunt, despite the fact that it was a tie game and Everett is a very good bunter who hit just .248/.290/.364 this season. The decision appeared to backfire, as Everett took a ball, fouled off strike two, and struck out swinging.

Craig Biggio followed by grounding out to second base, leaving Ausmus stuck there with two outs. However, like many of the questionable moves Garner made in the game, he was let off the hook. Willy Taveras beat out an infield single to shortstop, putting men on first and third with two outs, and Lance Berkman laced a double down the left-field line to score both runners.

Dan Wheeler later relieved Andy Pettitte with Houston up 4-2 in the seventh inning, recorded two outs while giving up a double and a walk, and found himself facing Jermaine Dye with runners on first and second. Wheeler ran a fastball inside on Dye and homeplate umpire Jeff Nelson made an awful call in what has been a postseason full of awful calls. The ball hit Dye’s bat and rolled foul, but Nelson ruled that Dye was hit by the pitch.

Not only did replays show that the ball clearly hit Dye’s bat, his reaction to the play should have given Nelson all the information needed to rule correctly. If someone gets hit in the wrist, forearm or elbow by a big-league fastball, they will have some kind of reaction that denotes pain. Dye may not have fallen to the ground writhing in agony, but he certainly would have, say, shaken his arm. He did nothing like that and in no way reacted as if he thought he had been hit by the pitch until after Nelson made the call.

So instead of Dye up with a 3-2 count, two outs, and two runners on, the White Sox had the bases loaded and their best hitter, Paul Konerko, at the plate. Garner pulled Wheeler and brought in Chad Qualls, a move that made some sense considering Wheeler was struggling and Qualls has been very effective in the postseason. However, the spot—bases loaded, two outs, Konerko up—was likely to be the most important one the Astros would find themselves in all night. Rather than call on Qualls, why not turn to Brad Lidge?

I know why—setting aside how the game ended, Lidge is a closer and was being saved for a save opportunity that may or may not ever come—but if ever there was a high-leverage situation that screamed for unconventional bullpen usage, that was it. Lidge allowed opponents to hit just .223 this season and struck out 35 percent of the batters he faced; he is Houston’s best reliever and that’s the spot—that’s the “save” situation—you want your best reliever in. Qualls promptly served up a grand slam on his very first pitch to Konerko and suddenly Chicago was up 6-4.

Garner was let off the hook after that as well, and even managed to make two more questionable decisions in the process. With the White Sox up 6-4 in the top of the ninth and Bobby Jenks on to close things out, Jeff Bagwell led off with a single, Jason Lane struck out, and Chris Burke walked. With two runners on and one out, Brad Ausmus stepped in against Jenks. Ausmus may be a lot of things, but with a .247/.322/.302 line against right-handed pitching this season he’s not the guy you want at the plate in that spot.

But rather than go to the bench for lefty bats Mike Lamb or Orlando Palmeiro, Garner stuck with Ausmus and watched as he grounded out weakly to first base. Then, with the weak-hitting Everett due up as Houston’s last chance, Garner decided to go with a pinch-hitter. It wasn’t Lamb or Palmeiro, though—Garner called on switch-hitter Jose Vizcaino, who batted a pathetic .222/.275/.278 against righties this season.

Vizcaino then made Garner look like a genius, singling through the hole between third base and shortstop. Bagwell scored easily from third and Burke made it home from second with the tying run, narrowly beating Scott Podsednik‘s throw as the ball sailed slightly up the first-base line and Burke slid to the back of the plate. With utility man Eric Bruntlett due up next and the game tied Garner finally pinch-hit Lamb, but Chicago skipper Ozzie Guillen brought in southpaw Neal Cotts from the bullpen to take away the platoon advantage and Lamb flied out to end the inning.

With the game amazingly tied heading into the bottom of the ninth, Garner summoned Lidge from the bullpen in the highest of high-leverage spots. That no-brainer move marked the end of my questioning Garner’s tactics, and as is the beauty of baseball it also marked the end of the game. After walking between raindrops all night, the Astros ended up with their best reliever on the mound in a tie game.

Lidge got Juan Uribe to fly out leading off the inning and then fell behind Podsednik 2-1. In between pitches, Fox play-by-play man Joe Buck asked color commentator Tim McCarver if Lidge had a bad taste in his mouth in his first game back on the mound after serving up the dramatic, ninth-inning bomb to Albert Pujols in Game 5 of the NLCS. As Lidge began to deliver his fourth pitch to Podsednik, McCarver replied, “I don’t think that taste is there.”

The words had barely passed McCarver’s lips when Podsednik turned on a fastball and drove it into the alley in right-center. The ball just kept carrying. It quickly went from a definite single to a sure double, and with Podsednik’s speed possibly a triple. And then it sailed right over the wall.

Game over.

With the rain pelting down on the field all night like a scene out of a bad movie, several questionable moves paid off and covered up for the ones that didn’t, a bad call had a huge and immediate impact, and the one seemingly predictable outcome—that a slap-hitter who failed to smack a single home run in 507 regular-season at-bats wouldn’t take one of the best pitchers in baseball deep—was anything but predictable.

The only thing better than last night’s dramatic, exhilarating, improbable game is the fact that there’s another one tomorrow night.

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