Braves 4, Astros 2
There was a heaping dose of intrigue, a bullpen phone either malfunctioning or not. There was an announcement that the Atlanta Braves had protested the game. There was a dramatic entrance by the Houston Astros' closer, about five outs earlier than he is normally seen. There was a botched suicide squeeze attempt. There was a play at the plate involving the potential tying run, the postseason fates of two teams rising and falling on every pitch.
And that was merely the bottom of the seventh inning.
The drama in Game 2 of the National League Division Series was just getting started. A solid hour would go by with the teams' respective closers dueling each other -- and even, in the case of Atlanta's John Smoltz, getting base hits off each other -- and still the outcome was undecided.
Not until Braves shortstop Rafael Furcal smashed a pitch from Dan Miceli into the seats in right field with two outs in the bottom of the 11th inning did this wild, classic contest have its resolution. The score: 4-2, Braves. The NLDS is tied at one game apiece, with Game 3 in Houston on Saturday afternoon.
"It's the best feeling in the world," said Braves second baseman Marcus Giles, who was on-deck when Furcal's two-run blast left the park. "It felt like the hair was standing three feet off my arms."
A crowd of 40,075 at Turner Field -- interspersed, conspicuously, with thousands of empty seats in the upper deck -- was already on its feet when Furcal came to the plate to face Miceli in the 11th. Charles Thomas, representing the go-ahead run, was in scoring position, having singled with one out and stolen second base.
Miceli got ahead with two quick strikes. But on a 1-2 pitch, he made a mistake over the plate, and Furcal ripped it, the blast sending the crowd into delirium and sending the Braves rushing out of their dugout for a wild celebration at home plate.
"I don't think anyone is going to forget this game," Smoltz said. "Now, the storyline has changed."
Has it ever. As the seventh inning began, the Braves were staring at a pair of 2-0 deficits. That was both the score in the game at that point, and the series hole they would have faced with a loss Thursday. It would have just about wrecked them, given the fact the next two games are in Houston's Minute Maid Park, where the Astros have not lost in nearly six weeks.
The seventh inning began innocently enough, with Astros starter Roy Oswalt, at that point carrying a six-hit shutout, trying to hang on to his 2-0 lead. A pinch-hit double by Braves pinch hitter Dewayne Wise and an RBI single to center by Furcal cut the margin in half. It was clearly time for Oswalt to be yanked from the game.
And that's when things began to get a little nutty.
With closer Brad Lidge warming up in the Astros' bullpen -- two innings sooner than usual -- Astros Manager Phil Garner suddenly came out of his dugout and informed home-plate umpire Phil Cuzzi that there was a problem with the Astros' bullpen phone. After several moments of confusion, a messenger finally was dispatched to the bullpen. And eventually Lidge entered the game to face Giles with the tying run on third base.
"We kept picking up the phone, picking up the phone," Garner said, "and it was busy. . . . I said [to Cuzzi], 'Look, I can't get the phone to work.' We didn't have any problems [in Game 1]. We didn't have any problems earlier in the game. It was just at that moment."
The Braves insisted the phone worked just fine, and reasoned the Astros were simply trying to buy more time for Lidge to warm up.
"They could have had some type of communication problem," Braves Manager Bobby Cox said. "But the phone was working, absolutely, 100 percent. . . . Well, it doesn't make any difference now. We won the ballgame."
Once Cox turned his attention back to managing, he began being remarkably aggressive. With Lidge facing a 2-1 count against Giles, Cox put on the suicide squeeze play. With Furcal barreling down the third base line, Giles squared to bunt, but bunted the ball straight into the ground, foul. Furcal retreated to third base, and Lidge, with his next pitch, blew Giles away with a fastball for the second out of the inning.
Four pitches later, when Lidge bounced a breaking ball that got away from catcher Raul Chavez, Furcal attempted to score again, but was cut down easily at the plate, with Lidge taking Chavez flip-throw and applying the tag.
Both teams took a deep breath. Inhale. Exhale. Repeat.
There would be more heavy breathing an inning later. Lidge, a right-hander with a nasty assortment of pitches, set an all-time record for relievers with 157 strikeouts. He had not allowed a run in nearly four weeks. But in the eighth inning, the Braves tied the game with a walk and three hits against him, the last of which was an RBI double off the wall in left-center by Adam LaRoche.
Did the Astros ask too much of their closer? "He was well-rested," Garner said, when asked about the decision. "I felt good about it, and I'd do it again."
If Furcal's game-winning homer is the lasting image of this affair, the next-most-memorable must have been Smoltz -- the last remaining member of the 1991 Braves squad that started its unprecedented run of 13 straight playoff appearances -- being allowed to bat in the bottom of the ninth, having already pitched two innings, and promptly lining a first-pitch fastball to right for a single.
"This was a must-win game," Smoltz said. "Everyone had to be prepared to do whatever it took. . . . My adrenaline was pumping when I got that hit, more than on any pitch I've ever thrown."