The best night of postseason baseball since, maybe, ever ended when Houston second baseman Jeff Kent drove the first pitch he saw from St. Louis closer Jason Isringhausen off the brick facing in Minute Maid Park's leftfield for a three-run home run. Isringhausen tried to run a cutter away from Kent -- catcher Mike Matheny had set up outside -- but missed in with it, and Kent, a superb mistake-pitch hitter, punished it.
"About 95 percent of my at-bats I go up there with a first-pitch attitude," Kent said. "I'm swinging. I hack. I know Izzy, faced him a lot. I know he's got a good cutter. He's got a runner on second base; he doesn't want to put another on. I didn't want to get cheated at all. I was going to take three swings."
Kent's walk-off -- which, incidentally, came just 24 minutes after David Ortiz's in Game 5 of the ALCS -- was preceded by a typically adept at-bat from centerfielder Carlos Beltran, who lined a 2-0 fastball into center to lead off the inning, then stole second, forcing an intentional walk to rightfielder Lance Berkman.
From the Bench
It's hard to fault anybody here -- though, as has become de rigueur in this Phil Garner box, I'll point out that Kent's home run spared the Houston manager a very difficult decision about whether to bring closer Brad Lidge back for the 10th. St. Louis skipper Tony La Russa, however, did a very uncharacteristic thing when he tapped Isringhausen to start the eighth (as he did in Game 4, using Isringhausen down a run in the eighth).
In 13 playoff games before Monday, Isringhausen hadn't recorded more than three outs, and did so only 13 times in 74 appearances during this regular season. It's not Isringhausen's stamina that's in question; it's his stuff. He lacks the single dominant pitch, like a Mariano Rivera cutter or a Lidge slider, that defines most finishers, and so tends to grapple with second innings.
La Russa may have made the move because the back end of his bullpen is tapped out. Righthander Julian Tavarez idiotically broke two bones in his left hand punching a dugout phone Sunday, lefthander Steve Kline's torn index finger flexor tendon has flared up, and both Ray King and Kiko Calero (five earned runs in 5 2/3 innings between them in the LCS) have been battered. This was a runoff move, and it went against La Russa's preferred mix-and-match style, which requires a full slate of bullpen arms.
This was a taut, thrilling game, thanks to matching one-hitters by Houston's Brandon Backe and St. Louis' Woody Williams. Backe, a native of Galveston, Texas, an hour down I-45 from the ballpark, carried a no-hitter into the sixth and threw the game of his life, deceiving with four different pitches, after a mediocre Game 1. "Locating my fastball and establishing my fastball, that was the difference," he said. "I threw a lot more curveballs last game, and maybe they were waiting on them." Said La Russa, "You never knew for sure what was next." ... Beltran made two exceptional defensive plays, the first a diving, full-extension grab of Edgar Renteria's sinking liner to end the seventh, the next a backtracking run up Tal's Hill in centerfield to haul in a Reggie Sanders drive leading off the eighth. "I've seen lots of guys run up that hill and bite the dust," Lidge said. ... Houston first baseman Jeff Bagwell conceded there was some interest in the Yankees-Red Sox affair. "A little," he said. "All of us were watching in the clubhouse before the game, and we heard when they won, but we were pretty into our own game tonight."
This was a massive, momentum-swing game for the Astros, who seem invincible at home. No single decision will more significantly impact the outcome of the series, however, than Garner's pick for his Game 6 starter. "Haven't announced it yet," was all he offered. "I'm going to sleep on the Game 6 starter."
Garner must choose between Roger Clemens on three days' rest or Pete Munro. In three starts, Clemens is 2-0 with a 2.84 ERA, 19 strikeouts in 19 innings this postseason; Munro took a no-decision in his only start, Game 2 of the NLCS, and allowed three runs on six hits in 4 2/3 innings. Hobson's Choice, anyone?
This situation precisely replicates Garner's dilemma before Game 4 of the NLDS: One game from winning the series, with room to breathe, whom do you trust? He made the desperation move then, using Clemens short, and the Rocket was not sharp, allowing two runs through five innings, and it was a miracle he lasted that long. He could not pick up his fastball velocity, subsisted on sliders and splits, and even those weren't crackling. Munro, a midseason pickup from the Twins, was 4-7 with a 5.15 ERA this year; his 120 hits in 99 2/3 innings show he's not fooling anybody.
Despite those numbers, the move is Munro. Going short with Clemens means, if he loses, going short with Roy Oswalt in Game 7, an equally distasteful option given Oswalt's NLDS Game 5, about as poor as Clemens's Game 4. The bullpen's rested, and with an off day Tuesday, Lidge can resurface in Game 6, probably for six outs. Let Munro try to go five, and work the pen from there. The allure of a rested Clemens pitching to clinch a World Series berth is too powerful to ignore.