The Not-So-Funny Baseball Blowout
Last week in baseball, George Springer tied the Astros single game record for hits with six. I was in Milwaukee when Joe Morgan set the record. It took him twelve innings to do it, but it only took Springer nine. The record for a nine-inning game is seven. Still, six is way above average.
The Astros pounded the A’s 16-2, so it wasn’t just Springer. As the game progressed I was reminded of some discomfort I had in similar baseball games when I was managing. In baseball, a blowout is called a “laugher.” Once you get way ahead everyone can relax. I did as a player. As a manager, it was different. I had to deal with some grief from our best players. Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Moises Alou would fight tooth and nail to play every day no matter what.
One time, Carl Everett pitched a fit when he wasn’t in the lineup. I admired their desire to play every day, but I can only imagine how it is to drag yourself out there sometimes. I knew they were tired after an extra inning night game, followed by a day game in another city, for example. I also knew when they were hurt and getting treatment before the game. Sometimes one of them was taped up in more than one place when he took the field. Under those circumstances, I would get them out of the baseball game early if we took a big lead or got way behind. They didn’t mind that. But it usually didn’t work out that way.
There were other times when we jumped out front by six or seven runs and they weren’t hurt, but were ready to shut down. They thought we had it won before I was ready to light my cigar.
Whitey Herzog once said that the seventh inning gets more major league baseball managers fired than anything else. He was speaking mostly about the bullpen. But there were a few times when I felt pressure to do something, like playing behind the runner at first base, that suggested I thought we had it won in the seventh. Most of the time, I didn’t do it. I left a few guys in games, even though they grumbled. Usually it was on the road, when the other team still had three more chances to score in a hitter’s ballpark.
In 2000, we lost a huge lead in the ninth on May 22. The Brewers scored seven runs to tie it and another in the tenth to win it. Some of our players were probably laughing when we scored three in the eighth and two more in the ninth. But I do know that once you take a guy out, you can’t put him back in. I’ll never forget losing that baseball game. I bet some players on that team don’t even remember it. It’s not the same when you’re a player.
A little over a year later, we scored two in the ninth at Pittsburgh to take an 8-2 lead. Everyone relaxed when Mike Jackson retired the first two batters in the ninth. Then he gave up four hits and a walk. Not so funny. By the time I got Billy Wagner into the baseball game, there were men on first and second with Jason Kendall at the plate. A home run would tie it. Instead, Wagner hit him to load the bases for Brian Giles. You guessed the rest, right? Giles hit Wagner’s second pitch into the river behind the right field seats – a walk-off grand slam. I bet no one on that team has forgotten that one.
That was in 2001, my last year in the driver’s seat. We overcame that setback and a won the division, biting our nails, not laughing in the end. On Sunday September 9th, Roy Oswalt shutout the Brewers and struck out 12 batters. We had a five and a half game lead on the Cardinals. We had Monday off. Then came 9/11, and all baseball games were cancelled. Baseball mourned for a week and the Astros didn’t play again until 9/18 in San Francisco. We won that night, but we lost our best pitcher, Roy Oswalt, in the third inning. A muscle pull put him out for the rest of the year.
The next day we scored four in the first and led 6-0 after six. It appeared to be a safe lead and our veterans volunteered to exit and let bench players finish up for them. They thought the lead was safe, but I asked them to play another inning. I can’t remember which player said it, but I still recall the words, “If I play another inning, I may as well play the whole game. There will only be an inning and a half left.” That was a fact, and we did win easily, but the thought was revealing. The 9/11 hiatus gave everyone a week to recover from any nagging injuries. It wasn’t rest they wanted; it was respect. They wanted to play every inning of a five-hour extra inning game. It may be necessary for some elite players to feel like the game is in doubt to get to the level of their greatness. They framed it as a good chance to rest and let a teammate get an at bat. But that wasn’t all of it.
The Cardinals won again that night. Although our lead was safe, I knew it was not. Having broadcasted for 18 years, I was well aware of the classic nosedives. I was hired after a mile one and I knew that we could still blow it. I wouldn’t have thought it possible if I were in the moment, like most players. The front of the dugout and a couple of decades offer a different point of view. The next day we completed the sweep. Beating the Giants’ excellent closer Rob Nen for the second time in the series. But, the Cardinals won too.
The next day, the Cardinals won, while we lost to the Cubs at home. Our lead was 3.5 games. The Cardinals won again the following day, but we won too. We had beaten Nen and contained Barry Bonds in San Francisco. We had won four out of five after the 9/11 break. We won, and they lost the next day. Easy peasy, right? Four and a half games up.
Then we played the Cardinals head-up at Minute Maid. We won the first baseball game to extend our lead. Then we lost the next two and it was down to three and a half — still a pretty safe lead with only ten games left to play. We gained half a game by beating the Cubs at Wrigley the following afternoon. They gained a game back on 9/28. Then another the next day. When they won again on Sunday October 1st, we lost, and our lead was one game, with the Giants coming to Houston. Our cushion was full of pins. No one was laughing.
The stage was set at Minute Maid for both the Astros and Barry Bonds on Tuesday October 2nd. All three games of the series were sold out before the first pitch was thrown. Our tiny lead was in jeopardy, but at least we were at home. We contained Bonds pretty well at Pac Bell, but that didn’t make me real comfortable. The Giants still had an outside chance to win the Wild Card. They were desperate. Our pitchers had the same instructions for Bonds. Pitch him tough. Throw your best stuff and try to nip the corners. Don’t worry about walking him. He won’t be trying to steal.
Under those marching orders, Bonds walked seven times in three games. Every time he walked, the fans booed like crazy. It was even worse when I intentionally walked him three times. That made it personal. Did the fans want us to lay it in there to let him tie Mark McGwire with 70 home runs? Maybe we could let him break the record in Houston too. Were they Astros fans, or did they just come out to see the record broken? I was furious.
We lost the first game 4-1. He scored once but didn’t drive in a run. The Cardinals won, and we were tied. The next day the Giants pounded our bullpen and won 11-8. We walked Bonds twice and I ordered one of them, but he failed to tie Mark McGwire’s magic number 70. I felt like the most unpopular guy in the city. But at least the Cardinals lost to the Brewers. Our last three games were in St. Louis. No laughing matter.
In game three we lost everything, the game, our lead, and our attempt to prevent Bonds from tying the record. It was a blowout, a laugher for the Giants, and Bonds hit the big one in his last at bat against our last option in the bullpen, Wilfredo Rodriguez. He got his 15 minutes of fame (Almost. It didn’t take that long) on a 1-1 pitch leading off the ninth. A thunderous ovation shook the foundation of the ballpark, despite the fact that the Cardinals’ win over the Brewers was posted on the big scoreboard in left field. The crowd called him out for a curtain call. Then another. Maybe it was fifteen minutes. It felt like fifteen hours. Who knows? They may have been drinking champagne in the visiting locker room after the game. We were eating crow.
We had our backs to the wall in St. Louis, but if we could win two of three, we would tie them at 93-69 and win the division on a technicality. We had a winning record in our season series with them. We won the first baseball game at Busch Stadium 2-1. Pitchers Wade Miller and Woody Williams were outstanding. Billy Wagner, the closest thing to a surefire closer the Astros have ever had, saved it the hard way. He walked the first hitter, hit another batter and gave up an infield hit. With two outs and the bases loaded, he got a double pay to end it. No one was laughing. I stayed up into the wee hours to hear the last out of the Dodgers’ 11-10 win over the Giants – and took a deep breath. We had secured the Wild Card at the very least.
The next day, we had to start lefty Ron Villone in Oswalt’s slot in the rotation. Villone was great in relief for us that year. And he was a veteran who had started many games in his career. The Redbirds started 14-game winner Dustin Hermanson against him, and we had a 5-4 lead after four innings. After that it was all red. They won 10-6, and I was as ambivalent about the next day as I have ever been.
If the Astros won the last game, we’d win the division and start the playoffs at home against the Braves. If we lost, we’d start the playoffs in Phoenix as the Wild Card team. The Braves had beaten us in the ’97 and ’99 playoffs. They would bring Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz to the party. The D’Backs would go with Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. Would you rather hang or go to the electric chair? We had had some success against the Braves pitchers over the years, but not in the playoffs. We had no luck at all with Johnson or Schilling. I didn’t want to use Shane Reynolds. I wanted to save him to open the playoffs. But I knew he was our best option to win the division and start the playoffs at home. Upper management wasn’t torn like I was. They wanted to start Reynolds against the Cardinals, in hopes of winning the division and hosting the Braves. That’s what we did.
As it turned out, we may have been able to win that last game without Reynolds. But who could have guessed we would score a bunch of runs – 7 to be exact – off of 16-game winner Darryl Kile. The big blow was Jeff Bagwell’s 39th home run. Reynolds bent but didn’t break. He got us into the eighth inning and we won 9-2.
In game one of the playoffs, I lost my cool and ultimately, my job. Wade Miller started for us against Maddux. We led 3-2 after seven and I brought veteran Mike Jackson into the game in the eighth. All year long, that set-up assignment was Octavio Dotel’s. But Dotel had mysteriously lost velocity and control after the 9/11 tragedy. Jackson was a veteran, near the end of a great career. He had 142 saves, but he hadn’t been pitching that well toward the end of the year either. I didn’t think Mike would walk anyone and that was the deciding point. I was afraid Dotel would try to throw too hard and get wild.
Keith Lockhart led off with a ringing double to left. Jackson struck out Ken Caminiti. Then Marcus Giles hit a seeing-eye chopper between third and short to tie it. Jackson got Julio Franco to chop one too, but Julio Lugo made and error and everyone was safe. I brought Billy Wagner into the game and Chipper Jones greeted him with a home run.
In the press conference afterwards, I bristled when asked why I didn’t bring Dotel into the game. Naturally, the press looked up Jackson’s recent outings, which cast doubt on my decision.
Glavine beat us 1-0 the next day and the Braves completed the sweep at home. The Cardinals lost to Schilling, beat Johnson, and then lost the next two. Then Arizona won the battle of the Hall of Fame Starters, four games to one, with Johnson winning two and Schilling one. The D’backs and Yankees went seven games with Schilling winning the first game 7-1. Johnson pitched a shutout in game two. The Yankees won all three games in New York, but Johnson beat them again in Phoenix. In game seven, Schilling left in the eighth down 2-1 to Roger Clemens. Johnson pitching on 0 days rest, got the last out in the eighth and put another zero on the board in the ninth. In the bottom of the frame, Arizona scored two runs off Mariano Rivera to win it.
It was one of the best Fall Classics ever. Randy Johnson won three baseball games and the MVP. And have you counted the other Hall of Fame pitchers? Schilling may still make it. His win total is a little shy, but he went 11-2 with a 2.23 ERA in post-season games.
I feared I would have been hung or electrocuted one way or the other. As it turned out, a civil conversation ended my managing career a few days after the World Series. I was eventually able to laugh it off.
Featured Image: By Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA – George Springer, CC BY-SA 2.0, 7/22/17 https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61270971