Of all the times to turn their back on all that infernal bunting and hitting and running and putting the ball in play, all that smallball, the Houston Astros picked the worst.
Needing a squeeze play to win a game they had to win, the Astros swung away and failed. Needing a hit, they struck out looking again and again. Needing but one run, they didn’t move a leadoff runner off of first base in extra innings.
So the Chicago White Sox won the longest World Series game in history 7-5 to take a 3-0 lead in the Series. Unless Houston can become the second team in as many years to pull a once-in-a-lifetime comeback miracle, the White Sox are going to win their first championship since 1917.
Six times the Astros had the winning run on base Tuesday night in the eighth inning or later, and six times they didn’t get him home. The Sox had their missed chances too, getting the go-ahead run into scoring position in the ninth and 11th innings and failing to score him before Geoff Blum homered in the 14th.
The Astros had 82 sacrifice hits this season. They don’t talk about smallball as much as the White Sox do, but with their weaker lineup they’re better suited for it, and they do play it. They were third in the National League in stolen-base attempts, tied for fourth in sacrifice bunts.
The biggest problem with smallball is Earl Weaver’s Fifth Law of managing: “If you play for one run, that’s all you’ll get.” Giving up outs kills big innings.
But sometimes one run is all you need. Playing at home, tied up in the ninth inning or later, down 2-0 in the World Series, that’d be one of those times.
After Jason Lane greeted new reliever Dustin Hermanson with a double to score the tying run with two outs in the eighth, the Astros had a golden opportunity to win it in the ninth. All they needed was a little scientific baseball, a little old-school jazz, a squeeze play. Instead, they let a Punch-and-Judy hitter swing away despite looking overmatched. He struck out. The rally died.
Hindsight is easy. It’s also easy to jump up and down yelling, “Squeeze! Squeeze play, you fools! Squeeze!” as a certain columnist might have been doing. Full disclosure: I have no rooting interest in Houston vs. Chicago, but I wanted the Astros to win Game 3 and make a series of it.
Thanks to two walks and a throwing error on a pickoff attempt by Sox reliever Orlando Hernandez, plus a steal of third, Houston had runners at the corners with one out in the ninth and Willy Taveras up.
Taveras, the Astros’ rookie center fielder, had two doubles and a triple in the first two games of the Series, but he’s a light hitter, not a big threat, and certainly not against the kind of nasty stuff El Duque was throwing up there.
But he does handle the bat well. He sacrificed nine times during the regular season and frequently bunts for base hits. A squeeze play is never a sure thing, but Taveras’ chances had to have been better bunting than swinging away, even with the infield in.
If that wasn’t clear from past performance, it was clear after the first pitch, a fastball on the outside that Taveras flailed at, foul-tipping it as he stumbled across home plate. He had a better swing at the next pitch, also a fastball on the outside, fouling it back. Hernandez then threw two fastballs high before making Taveras look bad with a slow curve. Strike 3 swinging.
After an intentional walk to Lance Berkman, Morgan Ensberg struck out swinging also, sending the game to extra innings.
And so it went. From Lane’s double to the end of the game the Astros went six and a third innings against five relievers without getting a hit. But they got eight walks, a hit batsman, two errors and a stolen base, and they still couldn’t score the single run they needed.
They struck out nine times, three of them looking, all three with the winning run on base. And that’s not counting Craig Biggio watching Strike 3 in the seventh inning with the tying run on base. And Biggio wasn’t fooled on that pitch, either. He just thought it was a ball. It wasn’t, or at least it was too close to take.
So much for putting the ball in play. The Astros were 13th in the league, out of 16, in walks, but Tuesday their bats were glued to their shoulders in crucial situations.
In the 13th inning, Damaso Marte was pitching for the Sox. Like El Duque, he was nasty but wild. He walked Jose Vizcaino to lead off the inning with Biggio and Taveras coming up, the top of the order.
OK, another chance to play a little smallball. Perhaps a sacrifice, something Biggio can do. Maybe a hit and run. Just need one here.
Nope. Biggio struck out looking again. He’d fouled off a pair of two-strike pitches before being fooled by a filthy fastball at the knees and on the inside corner. Not to be outdone, Taveras struck out looking at the same pitch. Berkman grounded into a force play.
In the top of the 14th Jermaine Dye led off with a single for the Sox but the Astros got a snazzy around-the-horn double play on Paul Konerko’s hot smash, Ensberg making a great backhand stop at third. But then Blum deposited Ezequiel Astacio’s 2-0 pitch into the right-field bleachers and Chicago had the lead.
The Sox scratched out an insurance run on two infield hits on rollers up the third-base line and then two walks by the rattled Astacio.
A walk and an error put the tying runs on board for the Astros in the 14th, but Mark Buehrle, a starter pitching in relief, got Adam Everett to pop out to end it.
In a game they had to have, the Astros had sent their best guy to the mound, Roy Oswalt. He didn’t have his best stuff, but he kept Chicago off the board for four innings as his mates built a 4-0 lead. He gave up two hits and three walks, but induced a pair of double plays.
But Chicago got to him in the fifth. Joe Crede homered to lead off the inning, and then Oswalt gave up four singles, a double and a walk and he hit a batter. Oswalt did get two outs along the way, but he had clearly lost his effectiveness.
Through it all, the Astros bullpen remained quiet. Five runs, six hits, a walk and a hit batter, and manager Phil Garner didn’t even have anybody getting warm. The relievers finally stirred after Aaron Rowand, the ninth man to bat in the inning, walked. Oswalt then plunked Crede before getting Juan Uribe to fly out.
I’m not sure what Garner was saving his very good staff of relievers for. Oswalt pitched one more inning, and then five relievers threw seven innings of two-hit shutout ball before Astacio, an insurance policy who had pitched one inning in the past month, gave up Blum’s homer.
Now those relievers are all one loss away from a good long rest.
And just you watch: In Game 4, the first time the Astros get a leadoff man on base, they’ll bunt him over.
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