Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Best Postseason Win: Houston Astros

The 2004 Astros had a wonderful season in essentially all respects. They had one of the NL's best lineups, led by an extraordinary year from Lance Berkman, who was complemented by solid seasons from Jeff Kent, Jeff Bagwell, and even the aging Craig Biggio. The capper, however, was the midseason acquisition of the magnificent Carlos Beltran, who hit, fielded, and ran beautifully both in the regular season and in the playoffs. The team mounted a late charge to pass the fading Cubs for the Wild Card, won an excellent NLDS against the Braves, then faced the Cardinals in a classic NLCS that went the full seven games before Houston went down in defeat.

After that season, the team lost Beltran and Kent to free agency. Their replacements were mostly Chris Burke and Willy Taveras, which was a notable downgrade. Moreover, Bagwell missed most of the year due to injuries and was ineffective when on the field. And Berkman, while still a fine player, slipped a bit from his '04 productivity. The departures and declines were partially offset by Morgan Ensberg's big season, but the team still slipped from 5th in the league in scoring to 11th.

As a result, their record declined from 92 wins all the way down to... 89, and a second consecutive NL Wild Card. The team was buoyed significantly by improvement in the pitching staff; the pitchers were largely the same as they'd been the year before, but Andy Pettitte stayed healthy all year and had an exemplary season, and Roger Clemens shaved more than a full run off of his already-terrific ERA. Add in a 20-win season from Roy Oswalt, and you had a front three that helped the team allow the fewest runs in the league.

Their reward? A second consecutive LDS matchup with the Braves. The teams split the two games in Atlanta, and the Astros grabbed Game 3 back home, which brings us to...

2005 NLDS Game 4: Astros 7, Braves 6 (18). Atlanta started Tim Hudson, who is actually pretty similar to Oswalt in that they were both among the 5 or so best starters of the generation that debuted around the turn of the century, but have little to no chance at the Hall of Fame. It would have been vaguely poetic Houston had responded with Oswalt; instead, they selected Brandon Backe, who was... not as good.

Both starters were perfect in the first. Andruw Jones led off the second with a double, but remained on second when the inning ended. Mike Lamb's one-out single in the home second made him the only Houston baserunner in the frame.

Atlanta opened the scoring in the third. Rafael Furcal drew a one-out walk. With two outs, Chipper Jones walked, and Andruw was hit by a pitch to load the bases. Adam LaRoche then launched a grand slam to right center, putting the Braves ahead 4-0 and giving them an excellent chance to bring the series back to Georgia for a fifth game.

Hudson was perfect in both the third and fourth innings, with the two efforts being separated by Hudson's own single in the top of the fourth (he was left on). Atlanta then added to its lead in the fifth, as Marcus Giles singled, Chipper doubled him to third, and Andruw brought him home with a flyout. Mike Gallo replaced Backe and allowed two more baserunners - but the intentional walk and hit batter just loaded the bases, and Brian McCann grounded out to leave them that way.

(Incidentally, it's odd to see McCann hitting eighth in a lineup that includes guys like Jeff Francoeur and Ryan Langerhans. 2005 was McCann's rookie season, and his breakout really came the next year.)

The Astros got on the board for the first time in the fifth. Lamb started the rally with a single, and was forced at second on a grounder by Jason Lane. Singles by Adam Everett and Brad Ausmus then loaded the bases, and pinch hitter Orlando Palmeiro's sacrifice fly broke up Hudson's shutout. Craig Biggio flied out to strand the remaining runners, and Atlanta tried to respond in the sixth, starting with a Hudson double. But after a sac bunt and a walk, Chipper hit into a double play to extinguish the rally.

Hudson was perfect in the sixth, and the Braves had yet another chance in the seventh when LaRoche singled with one out and Francoeur doubled. LaRoche was thrown out trying to score on the play, and Francoeur was left at third. Hudson continued his excellent work, however, countering a Lane single with a double play in the home seventh, and Atlanta finally scored again in the eighth when McCann greeted Wandy Rodriguez with a homer. (Note that Rodriguez entered the game as part of a double switch, with Eric Bruntlett taking over short in place of Everett. This will start to become relevant later.)

Ausmus walked and Bruntlett singled to start the eighth, which ended Hudson's day. Kyle Farnsworth relieved and coaxed a force from Biggio; a double steal and a walk to Luke Scott loaded the bases for Berkman, who worked a 2-1 count and then cranked a grand slam that suddenly pulled Houston to within a run.

Chad Qualls took the mound in the top of the ninth, and Houston manager Phil Garner started getting really creative with his substitutions. Qualls replaced Lamb in the fifth spot in the lineup. Berkman moved from left field to first base. Scott, having hit for Willy Taveras, took over left field. Bruntlett moved from shortstop to Taveras's center field spot. And Jose Vizcaino entered as Houston's third shortstop of the day. After double checking that the defense actually had a player in every position, Qualls walked Chipper, induced a double play from Andruw, and ended the inning without further drama.

Farnsworth recorded the first two outs in the ninth on seven pitches. That brought Ausmus, hardly Houston's most imposing hitter, to the plate. On a 2-0 count, Ausmus, who had hit three home runs in full-time duty during the regular season, homered to tie the game at 6. Farnsworth then struck out Bruntlett to send the game to extras.

Qualls worked around a double by Langerhans in the top of the tenth. In the bottom of the inning, Berkman doubled off of Chris Reitsma with two outs and was pulled for pinch runner Chris Burke. Morgan Ensberg was intentionally walked, and Jeff Bagwell was called on to pinch hit and flied out to end the inning.

Brad Lidge relieved in the top of the eleventh, and for once, Houston's pitcher's spot stayed in the same place in the order. But Berkman being pulled still necessitated another new defensive alignment, with Burke taking over center, Bruntlett moving back to shorstop, and Vizcaino shifting to first base. Once Houston's players were all in place, Furcal led off the inning with a walk and stole second. Chipper walked with one out, Furcal stole third, and Chipper took second on defensive indifference before Lidge brought the inning to a close. Reitsma set the Astros down with much less drama in the home half of the inning.

Lidge gave up a single and steal to Langerhans in the twelfth, but nothing else; John Thompson worked a 1-2-3 bottom of the inning. In the thirteenth, Dan Wheeler took over Houston's pitching duties, and Garner reorganized his fielders once more. Wheeler replaced Scott in the second spot in the order. Burke moved from center to left, Bruntlett returned to center, and Vizcaino reassumed shorstoppipng duties. That left first base open, with no obvious options to put there. Garner shifted Ausmus from catcher to first base, a position at which he would spend less than one inning per season in his 18-year career, and inserted backup catcher Raul Chavez behind the plate. Wheeler was flawless in the inning, and Thompson worked around a Chavez walk to post a scoreless effort as well.

Andruw led off the fourteenth with a walk, and 46-year-old Julio Franco then reached on a bunt single. Francoeur bunted the runners to second and third, and Langerhans was intentionally walked to load the bases. McCann struck out, and pinch hitter Pete Orr grounded into a force to end the rally. Jim Brower set Houston down in order in the bottom of the inning, and Wheeler allowed only a Giles walk in the fifteenth.

Biggio led off the home half of the fifteenth with a walk, bringing the pitcher's spot up. At this point, the Astros were (unsurprisingly) out of position players, so to pinch hit, they brought up... Roger Clemens. Who, at age 42, had never been used as a pinch hitter in his two-decade career (and never would be again). Clemens bunted Biggio to second, Burke walked, and Ensberg hit into a double play.

Since he was already in the lineup, Garner figured he might as well let Clemens pitch. The move came with one final fielding realignment, as Ausmus moved back behind the plate and Chavez shifted to first (the only time in his career he would play any position other than catcher). Clemens and Brower were both flawless in the sixteenth. Brian Jordan hit a pinch double in the top of the seventeenth, but Clemens left him at third; Joey Devine then set Houston down 1-2-3 in the second half of the inning. In the eighteenth, Andruw reached on an error by the Houston shortstop (it was Vizcaino by this time, and yes, I had to double check); Clemens left him at first, and then led off the bottom of the inning.

How cool would it have been if Clemens had hit a walkoff homer in the eighteenth? He didn't, which isn't exactly a surprise since he hit no home runs in his career. Instead, walkoff duties were left to Burke, who hit a 2-0 pitch over the fence to end the game and Atlanta's season.

The Astros would advance to another rematch, but this time, they handled the Cardinals in six in the NLCS despite Albert Pujols hitting a titanic ninth-inning home run that turned Game 5 around (and cost Berkman a shot at cementing his Astros legend, as he'd hit what could have been a pennant-clinching homer two innings earlier). They went on to the World Series against the White Sox, which they lost in the most exciting sweep every played.

There is so much going on in this game. The Braves held a large lead for most of regulation - but they also missed a huge number of chances to extend it. The team went 1 for 18 with runners in scoring position (the one hit, of course, being LaRoche's grand slam), and lost the game by a run in 18 innings. Even for a team that was famous for not coming through in the postseason, that's painful.

But the real fun came from the other dugout, as Phil Garner's insistence on avoiding the pitcher's spot in the order ended up causing him to switch out half of his starting lineup before the game ended. The following numbers apply to the Astros in this game:

Six players appeared at multiple defensive positions, three of whom started the game on the bench.
Three double-switches were made.
Three players moved away from a particular defensive position, then back to it later in the game. One player did this at two different positions.
Two players (at least) made appearances that can be described with the phrase "the only time in his career." One of them was an all-time great who played for over two decades.

WPL does not account for any of that (nor for the unlikelihood of Ausmus's game-tying homer) - but the length of the game and the number of scoring opportunities wasted by the Braves still puts it among the top 10 postseason tilts of all time.

The honorable mention section is pretty healthy. The spectacular 1980 NLCS predictably offers a couple of excellent options. The best was Game 2, in which the Phillies blew the lead in the seventh, the Astros blew the lead in the eighth, the Phillies left the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, the Astros scored four in the tenth and the Phillies got the tying run to the plate in the person of Mike Schmidt before finally succumbing. Game 3, an 11-inning 1-0 Houston victory in which Joe Niekro shut the Phillies out for the first 10 innings and still didn't get the win, looks relatively tame by comparison. Speaking of Niekro, he also started the nearly-identical Game 2 of the 1981 NLDS, which also went 11 and ended up 1-0, though Niekro only threw the first 8 innings of that one.

The next entry will have a lot in common with this one: both teams were created in the early '60s, both play in Texas, and both have endured some fairly painful failures to win a World Series.

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