When John Smoltz walked into an empty clubhouse during the bottom of the 11th inning, he knew. "When I came in here, I said out loud, 'It's over, Fukey's going to end it,' " Smoltz said in the Braves clubhouse just moments after Rafael Furcal ripped his game winning two-run homer in the 11th inning of Game 2. "Of course, no one was here to hear that ... but I swear that's true."
Furcal's thrilling home run was an expectedly exhilarating finish to a game that had unfolded with as much drama as a forgettable midsummer regular-season game. For the series' first 19 innings, the Braves looked doomed to yet another ignominious early postseason exit. And for seven innings, Game 2, played in the afternoon shadows of Turner Field on a glorious 72-degree Atlanta afternoon, was a virtual Xerox of Game 1: a flawed but effective start from the Astros starter, squandered opportunities by Braves hitters and yet another embarrassingly sparse playoff crowd at Turner Field.
The game -- and, perhaps, the series -- turned in the eighth inning, when rookie Adam LaRoche ripped a double off Astros closer Brad Lidge to score Chipper Jones and infuse life into what had been a lifeless series.
From the Bench
The two managers' unconventional use of their closers -- Lidge pitched a season high 2 2/3 innings, while Braves closer John Smoltz logged his longest outting as a reliever since Sept. 23, 2001 -- raised a lot of eyebrows. The two teams have an off day Friday, and Smoltz assured that he'd be ready if called upon in Game 3 in Houston.
Said Smoltz, "I guarantee you that if Lidge had to go two innings on Saturday, too, he'd do it too." Asked if he thought closers can pitch two or three innings on a regular basis, Smoltz said, "It can be done. The day off does wonders. It's all about your mindset. If you're guaranteed a day off the next day, then you can go in there with the right mindset and pitch for two or three innings and be fine."
Many in the press box immediately wondered if Garner's contention that the bullpen phone wasn't working was a trick to buy his relievers more time to warm up. Said Garner after the game, "I think this is too grand a stage to try to pull a stunt like that." Said Chipper Jones, "All I know is what the groundskeeper told me, the phone wasn't working. But you know what? Who cares? We were going to see Lidge anyway, whether it was then or later on. And we ended up getting a run off him anyway".
Looking ahead: Garner has yet to announce his Game 4 starter (Brandon Backe is set to start in Game 3), but he has also yet to rule out Roger Clemens' availability for that game. It's likely that the skipper will go with Pete Munro rather than Clemens if the Astros win Game 3. If Houston loses, Garner may very well turn to his old ace on three days' rest.
Smoltz was pleased with getting a hit off Lidge on Thursday -- "Getting that hit was the last thing I thought I'd do," he said, "and I'm sure it was the last thing Lidge thought I'd do, too" -- but after the game, Smoltz marveled at the talent of his 27-year-old counterpart. "[Lidge's] slider is as good as it gets. There's just a new age of future closers out there -- [Joe] Nathan, Lidge, [Eric] Gagne -- that are going to do real well in the next few years." ... Houston GM Gerry Hunsicker had no interest in understating the importance of Game 2. "In my opinion, [Thursday's] game is the most important game in the history of this franchise," Hunsicker said before the game. "It's important because of what the outcome means to the rest of the series. If we win, we go up two games to none, and if that happens, you'd have to feel very good about going home with a 2-0 lead. On the other hand, if we lose, we're back to even with them." ... On Thursday, the ghosts were back for the Astros, who have been haunted in postseasons past by miserable offensive output. The Astros went hitless from the seventh inning on.
Houston, we have a series. The Astros still have the edge as the series moves to Minute Maid Park, where Houston has an 18-game win streak. It will be particularly interesting to see how the Astros' offense will respond to their late inning disappearance in Game 2. Has the Braves' offense awakened with Furcal's stunning walkoff home run? "All it takes is one hit, and the floodgates open," said Chipper Jones. "We'll see in Houston if they've opened for us."