It’s easy to look back on Sunday’s marathon game in Houston and be disgusted. There are so many things in an eighteen inning game that you can review when you lose the way the Braves lost and be upset about. But sitting here watching the replay, there’s more to it than that.
If you are not a Braves’ fan, you might read this article and get angry. “There go those Braves’ fans griping about being screwed again in the playoffs.” Well, whatever. That’s fine. And if you want to say I’m upset about some of the things that happened, you’d be right.
First, the series was always going to be tough. Talent or not, this Braves’ team was a collection of kids that could have easily been studying for a biology exam Sunday afternoon. Instead, this group was playing for a trip to the National League Championship Series. And then, they were taking on a team that had three of the best pitchers in the game today.
But the thing that hurts is we should have won. On the surface, that’s easy to say. Sure, with a 5-0 and then a 6-1 lead, the Braves should have held on and won. Kyle Farnsworth should never have given up five runs. But again, there’s more to it than that.
I watched the game in a Hooters Restaurant in Auburn, Alabama. Despite the tremendous scenery, it was not an easy thing for this University of Georgia graduate to do. There were, as you can imagine, a lot of distractions. But in watching the game today on replay, I was able to see a whole lot more.
When I got home Sunday night, our message board was exploding in discussing Adam LaRoche being thrown out at home plate in the seventh inning. So that was immediately what I wanted to watch again. Some fans were saying LaRoche wasn’t running hard between second and third, and others were blaming third base coach Fredi Gonzalez for sending LaRoche home.
First off, a little information. It is true; Adam LaRoche was sicker than a dog on Sunday. He threw up several times before and during the game.
Now to the running issue. Did LaRoche slow up? Was he loafing?
Well Adam LaRoche does NOT loaf. He plays as hard as anyone on that team. Since he’s not very fast, it sometimes looks like he’s not playing or running at 100%, but believe me, he does. There’s no one on that team that plays harder. He’s just more methodical in his approach.
I truly believe Adam thought he’d be held up at third base. He had the play in front of him, and knowing his speed more than any of us, he couldn’t have predicted Fredi Gonzalez sending him home. But then, Fredi did send him home.
And again, Adam was sick. So before you holler about wondering whether or not he was running hard or not, I’d like for you to do me a favor. The next time you have a stomach virus and are throwing up everything in your body except your liver, get up out of your bed and go run around the block three times as hard as you can.
Ok, now that we’ve gotten past that, on to the play. My only question is: Why did Fredi send him home? He knows Adam is not Otis Nixon. He had to know it would take a bad throw for Adam to make it home. But yet he sent him anyway. If Fredi had held Adam up at third, we would have had two runners in scoring position with one out and a chance to increase our lead.
But forget that Adam was sick. Forget that Adam wasn’t running as hard as you thought he should. Forget even that Fredi shouldn’t have sent him home. The bottom line is that Adam LaRoche was safe at home. That’s right. Adam was safe. In watching the replay ten times, it’s clearly obvious that Brad Ausmus tagged Adam with his glove. When seeing the shot from the third base dugout, you easily see Ausmus swipe Adam with his left hand, and the ball is still in his right hand. By the time Ausmus brings his right hand over with the ball in it and tags Adam, LaRoche has already crossed home plate.
The umpire blew the call.
So that was bad. It hurt. He shouldn’t have been sent home in the first place, but to have him called out when he was clearly safe makes it even more difficult to swallow.
Then Braves’ Manager Bobby Cox had to take LaRoche out. His trip around the bases was just to much for him to take. He was just too weak to continue. So in the bottom of the eighth inning, LaRoche was replaced at first base by Julio Franco. All you can say is that this was just bad fortune. The Braves would have never taken Adam out, needing his superb defense late in the game. But he was just too sick to continue.
In the bottom of the eighth, things fell apart. Tim Hudson walked the first batter, Brad Ausmus. It seems to happen every single time whenever any of our pitchers walk the first batter in an inning: bad things just happen. Then the next batter, Eric Bruntlett, hit a bounding ball up the middle of the diamond. Instead of going to first base, where his momentum was carrying him anyway, Rafael Furcal flipped the ball back to second baseman Marcus Giles, whose foot was just off the bag. Furcal should have gone to first base for the automatic out. Both Furcal and Giles made mistakes on that play, but perhaps Giles was surprised that Furcal was coming to him with the flip.
So for some reason, a walk and an infield hit compelled Bobby Cox to take Tim Hudson out. Now it’s easy for me now to scream at Cox for this, knowing what was to happen. But think about this. Remember in Game Four of the 1996 World Series. The Braves had a big lead in that game as well. But Cox blew it by over-managing. He brought in his closer, Mark Wohlers, an inning too soon that night as well. That was the game where Wohlers gave up the home run to Jim Leyritz, now recognized as a four-letter word in Braves’ history.
Cox once again brought in his closer too early. Farnsworth should have been brought in for the ninth inning only, and not after Hudson, who had thrown only 92 pitches, had given up a walk and an infield hit.
But even before Farnsworth did his damage, the umpires did more. Farnsworth’s first batter, Craig Biggio, bounced a ball to third. Chipper Jones stepped on the bag for the first out of the inning and then threw across the diamond to Julio Franco. The umpire called Biggio safe, saying Franco’s foot came off the bag. But the replay shows it was a terrible call. Franco’s foot was clearly on the bag. This kept runners at first and second, and then two batters later Lance Berkmann hit a grand slam to make it a one-run game.
Some fans are also upset that the batter before Berkmann, Luke Scott, walked after the third base umpire said he did not check his swing on a payoff pitch. I’ll side with the umpires on that one. It was close, but I think he held off.
And as I said, the grand slam came next. Now how ironic is that? We’ve had trouble with our bullpen the entire season. Then we go out and acquire someone who becomes perfect as our closer. Farnsworth was tremendous. He was the one pitcher in our pen we were not worried about. But yet he was the one that gave up the grand slam to put the Astros in the game.
Then the ninth inning rolled around. We had it. It was over. We all felt like it was. There were two outs. But then Brad Ausmus became Jim Leyritz. He hit a home run by inches on that left field cement. Inches. The Braves were that close to heading home for Game Five, but a home run by centimeters made them keep playing.
So then we were all tied, and we could go through every single extra inning. Should Cox have pinch hit for Brian McCann or Pete Orr when the bases were loaded in the 13th? Possibly. I think McCann should have been left in there, but I would have sent Jordan up instead of Orr with two outs. Jordan, even in his current geriatric condition, is a better hitter. But instead McCann and Orr both struck out, leaving the bases loaded.
The one thing we can say is the Atlanta bullpen, after Farnsworth, was outstanding. We were worried about Chris Reitsma, but he was terrific in his two innings of work. We were worried about whether John Thomson could pitch in relief, but he was terrific in his two innings of work. And we were probably worried the most about Jim Brower, but he was terrific in his three innings of work.
So the part of the bullpen we were not concerned about, Kyle Farnsworth, gave up five runs, while the part of the bullpen we were concerned about, the others, came through in the clutch and was outstanding.
We fast forward to the bottom of the eighteenth inning. Look, we all knew it was only a matter of time before someone pulled a ball toward left and it would get over that short left field porch. I wish it would have been one of our boys, but instead it was Chris Burke. The ball might have been a can of corn in other parks, but in Houston, Texas, where I guess everything except their stadiums are big, it was a game-winning home run.
I hate the Joey Devine was the one who gave it up. He pitched great up until that pitch. That kid is going to help us out a lot over the next several seasons, and don’t worry, he won’t let that pitch linger in his mind long.
But that’s not when we lost the game. We should have never been there. The Braves should have been halfway home to Atlanta by 8:00 pm that night. But the umpires, and once again our bullpen, albeit one member of our bullpen, kept that from happening.
Are you being a sore loser if you wine a bit about the umpires? Well, maybe. But that’s ok. I don’t mind. Those were two monumental calls that were missed. If they had instant replay in baseball, we never would have gone to extra innings. The Braves would have won by a score of 7-5 at the least, but it just wasn’t meant to be.
Maybe we are cursed. Maybe there’s something or someone not wanting us to win. We sure should have won Game Four the other day. It would have been easier to take if we had been blown out. Yeah, we could have griped and complained all winter about not being the better team, but now we’ve just got to wonder what would have happened if the umpires had made the right calls. That’s not easy to stew on for four months.
Forgive me. I really wanted the Braves to win that game, and they should have. Ok, so umps can‘t beat you. But they sure can help you not win.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team. Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.