Wednesday, Oct. 19
Editor's note: Rob Neyer and Eric Neel were second-guessing how long Phil Garner planned to keep Roy Oswalt in the game, and wondered why Garner didn't allow Brad Lidge to exorcise his demons and close out the series-clinching victory. And Rob and Eric make a big pitch for ... throwback unis! Here is the live transmission of their discussion during the end of Game 6 ...
Rob Neyer: It's the top of the seventh inning, the Astros are threatening to add to their 4-1 lead, and Roy Oswalt has thrown 106 pitches. I know we don't yet know what's going to happen -- how many runs the Astros might score, but as it stands, it's interesting to think about what the Astros should do with Oswalt in the bottom of the inning.
Eric Neel: This is sort of the classic managerial moment coming up for Phil Garner. There's a legit case to be made that he should stay with Oswalt for one more inning, or until Roy gets in trouble. There's also a good case to be made that he move to Dan Wheeler, Chad Qualls and Brad Lidge from here on out, given Oswalt's pitch count and the fact that the last two innings have been his toughest.
Rob: I think this is one of those spots where it's very difficult for us to know enough; if you're the manager (or probably the pitching coach), you simply ask Oswalt how he's feeling. If he says he's fine and (this is critical) you believe him, then you probably let him go out there for the seventh (while making sure Wheeler and/or Qualls is ready to go at the first sign of real trouble). Why? Well, your top relievers are precious. You don't want to use them until you're at least moderately sure that you need them. So again, depending on how Oswalt feels, I'd be inclined to give him a few more batters.
Eric: You're spot-on. What's interesting to me is the psychology of the moment, as much as we can imagine it anyway. Oswalt will almost certainly want to go back out there, will want to believe he's got enough to keep going. So will he be honest with Garner if, for example, he's tiring? Will he trust the pen? Will he be willing to live with sitting down? And if not, does his wanting to continue give him anything extra, even some little something? I know these are unanswerable questions, but they're what fascinate me about the moment.
Rob: Well, again, that's the manager's (and/or the pitching coach's) job. Ideally, the manager/coach knows his pitcher well enough to know if he's being honest. ... Anyway, we're just back from commercial, and Mr. Oswalt is warming up on the mound.
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Eric: Just heard a number on Fox saying he hadn't thrown this many pitches since July ... which is fine. The postseason is a time in which you expect your horses to be horses.
If I'm Garner, the one thing I'm trusting here, maybe just as much as Roy's word, is the gun. Roy is still throwing real, real hard.
Rob: Ah, don't fall into that trap, Eric. That's the crutch that every manager and pitching coach have used for years to justify letting some freckle-faced kid throw 130 pitches ... "But his velocity was still good!" As Rany Jazayerli will tell you, when a pitcher's tired -- and I'm not saying that Oswalt is -- he can compensate for the tired arm with other parts and pieces, which can lead to injury or (more often) poorly located pitches. Anyway, while I was writing this, Mr. Oswalt finished the seventh and I'll be shocked if Garner doesn't go to the pen now.
Eric: Good point. But what I'm saying is there's no way Garner's NOT watching that gun, and there's very little chance that what he's seeing there isn't coloring his decisions. Oswalt hasn't just been OK tonight; he's been electric. His fastball (and he's thrown, what, maybe 10 breaking balls all night) has been like a watch the hypnotist waves in front of your eyes, casting hitters, managers, fans, and writers under its mesmerizing spell.
The other thing to consider here is the possibility that Garner, managing with an eye to the Astros' painful history -- heck, managing with an eye to Monday night and Pujols' moonshot -- is loathe to put this game on his pen. Under normal circumstances, yes, he goes to the pen now, but it's interesting because "normal" for the Astros is a long trail of horrific, excruciating damnation. I'm not saying he won't use the pen; I'm just saying it won't shock me if he doesn't.
Eric: So it's the bottom of the eighth, and sure enough they sit him. Smart baseball move. No doubt. He'd thrown 118 pitches. Garner impresses me there, cutting through the layers of black magic and bad feeling.
Rob: By the way, it's not true that Oswalt hasn't thrown more than 106 pitches since July. He threw 123 on July 26, 107 in each of his next two starts, and more than 105 in four or five other starts (high of 110). But yeah, asking him to pitch the eighth would have been pushing his established limit. I'm not surprised he's out of there.
Eric: Whatever happens, let's give it up one time for MISTER Roy Oswalt! He's carried these Cardinal hitters around his back pocket like a sproinged plastic comb, like a receipt from A&W, like laundry lint.
Rob: Like a forgotten dead frog. Like a leaky pen. Like a lucky penny. Yeah, he's been fantastic, and let's not forget that, when the season started, we might reasonably have guessed that he -- and not one of the old guys -- would be the Astros' best pitcher. And I think that maybe he actually is.
Eric: Agreed. The drama of Clemens in 7 would have been terrific, but the excellence of Oswalt in 6 has been every bit as impressive.
Rob: Nobody's going to notice or remember, but just quick props for La Russa, who's smart enough to use his closer in a game the Cardinals are losing. I don't know that Joe Torre would figure this one out ... And in the other dugout, I'll bet Garner's absolutely thrilled that he'll be able to bring Lidge into a relatively safe situation. I don't really think Lidge is suffering any crisis in confidence anyway, but if he is, nailing down the Astros' first-ever World Series berth should take care of that.
Eric: Good point about La Russa. I believe he did it the other night in Houston, too. Most dominant pitcher when he's needed most, roles be damned. I like that thinking.
Rob: Well, now Dan Wheeler's throwing up in the bullpen. (And yes, that was for you, Jerry Coleman.) And if Lidge doesn't pitch in this game, I'm definitely picking the White Sox to win the World Series.
Eric: Look at Bags and Biggio. They can barely breathe. They're like clumsy magicians trying not to sneeze on a house of cards. It's painful to watch ...
Rob: Odd that the Astros would finally make it, and neither of those guys would be in the game.
Eric: Agreed. If it's Wheeler, that's a mistake. If it's Lidge, there is no story about Lidge in the Series. If it's Wheeler, reporters for the Whitney Young Daily Cryer are sticking mikes in Lidge's face, making his lower lip quiver ...
Rob: Wow. It's Wheeler. It feels awful strange to be second-guessing the team that's going to the World Series, but I just don't understand why Lidge isn't pitching right now. It's not that it's not a save situation. I see closers summoned to protect four-run leads all the time. The Astros were off yesterday, and will be off for the next two days, so obviously it's not a concern about fatigue, either past or future. Unless Garner has a specific policy that prohibits using his closer to protect a big lead, I just don't get this one. At all. And like I said, I'm picking the White Sox. These two teams are pretty even so you have to look for small things. Being the home team is a small thing in Chicago's favor. So, too, is the possibility that Lidge will spend the next two days doubting himself.
Eric: And doubting his manager. And feeling anything other than elation when/if they wrap this thing up.
Rob: Actually, if I had to bet, I'd bet that Lidge will be just fine. But I also think there's just a chance that he won't be. Which is a small tick mark on the board for the White Sox. ... More than anything else, tonight I'm happy for the Astros and (even more) for their longtime fans. As our colleague David Schoenfield notes, tonight marked the sixth time in franchise history in which a victory would have sent them to the World Series. In each of the first five, they held a lead, and in three of them they were ahead by two runs or more in the eighth inning or later. And until tonight, they'd lost all of them. So win or lose, it'll be great to see this team in the Series next week. I just wish they could wear throwback jerseys in one of the games ...
Eric: Just because they can't wear them doesn't mean we can't. Long Live J.R. Richard! I say. Yeah, congratulations to the Astros, to Garner, Oswalt, Biggio, Bagwell, and company, and to Nolan Ryan and Jose Cruz and Billy Hatcher and Mike Scott. Ladies and Gentlemen, Mike Scott! This sets us up for just a marvelously unpredictable World Series; unpredictable as in, whoda thunk it? And unpredictable as in, who's going to win it? But before we turn to the next series, let me say maybe my very favorite part of tonight is the death of an old, persistent idea about gut-punches and momentum. The mythology about Game 5 in 1986 was that Hendu's homer and the Angels' heartbreaking loss that day sealed the deal, that Boston's wins in Game 6 and 7 were determined before those games were ever played.
And we heard the same nervous chatter these last 48 hours about this series: "Oooooh the Cardinals are heading home," "Oh there's no way the Astros can recover from a blow like that," and so and so on. So when we tally up the things the Astros accomplished tonight, in addition to beating a very good Cardinals team, and lassoing a whole passel full of ghosts, let's not also take time to praise them for driving a stake in the heart of a big, nasty cliche about winning and losing and the hearts of professional athletes.
Rob: You think that hoary old idea is dead? Do you remember what people were saying about the Diamondbacks' chances after Byung-Hyun Kim got hammered in two straight games? People said there's no way the Diamondbacks can win, now that the Yankees have shown them what's what. I promise you, whether it's next year or the year after that, some team will lose a huge game in excruciating fashion and all the Mo-Mos will be back, telling us the psychological damage just can't be undone. Which of course is as silly now as it's always been ... Oh, and I'm not ready to give up on the throwbacks yet. How's about in Game 2, the Astros wear their 1970s togs and the White Sox don 1959 unis? And here's a bit of enticement for MLB ... merchandising!
Eric: As for the throwback idea, I'm with you. I have only one caution: No shorts. No big lapels. All right, that's two cautions. One for each of Greg Luzinski's naked knees.
Previous Second Guesses
• Oct. 17: Fear and loathing in Houston