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Paging Dr. Phil

Much like Trader Jack, Garner came out of nowhere to save Astros

Posted: Tuesday October 5, 2004 12:49PM; Updated: Tuesday October 5, 2004 2:11PM
The Blog's Awards Picks
Who will win: Roger Clemens
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Overlooked: Carl Pavano
2005 winner: Oliver Perez
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2005 winner: Barry Bonds
NL Rookie of the Year
Who will win: Khalil Greene
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2005 winner: Prince Fielder
NL Manager of the Year
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2005 winner: Frank Robinson
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AL Rookie of the Year
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2005 winner: Delmon Young
AL Manager of the Year
Who will win: Buck Showalter
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Overlooked: Mike Scioscia
2005 winner: Eric Wedge
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Dick Vermeil looks as if he's on the verge of tears, Jon Stewart has finished a bizarre and semi-coherent interview with Desmond Tutu, and the Blog's flight to Atlanta for the Braves-Astros series boards in a few hours. Past midnight in New York City, and it's time to start the blogging. We'll do our best to keep out any references to David Carr's haircut, Paris Hilton's new memoir and the merits of a "global test"....

And so another baseball postseason begins. Before we get to the Blog's picks, let's address a question just posed by Neil Everett on SportsCenter:

Are the Astros this year's Marlins?

(For the record, the eminent Harold Reynolds has just proclaimed, "Fiction!" the Astros will beat the Braves but fall to the Cardinals. "The most complete team in baseball," in Reynolds' estimation.)

The answer is Yes, the Astros are the Marlins of 2004 -- they will beat the Red Sox in six games in the World Series -- and the reason is Dr. Phil.

Quick flashback: In May of '03, Jack McKeon was enjoying a quiet life back home in Elon, N.C., where he would spend his mornings puffing on cigars on his porch while flipping through the local paper, his afternoons mentoring his grandson, an aspiring pitcher, and his nights watching baseball games in his living room on satellite TV. McKeon got the call from the Marlins. Five months later, he was soaked in Moet & Chandon in the visiting clubhouse at Yankee Stadium as the manager of baseball's world champions.

For the record, Phil Garner was attending his granddaughter's birthday party in rural south Texas in mid-July when his cell phone started buzzing. It was the Houston front office phoning to see if he'd be interested in replacing Jimy Williams as Houston's skipper. More than two years removed from his last managerial stint in Detroit, Garner had been spending his days cruising around on his Harley, taking walks on the beach and tanning on the golf course. "I slept in as late as I wanted to," he says, "unless, of course, I had a golf game." Life was good.

Before that phone call, "Managing was the last thing on my mind," Garner told the Blog three weeks ago, his legs propped up comfortably on his office desk as he smoked a cigar. Since then, of course, life has done a 180 on the 55-year-old former third baseman who was known in his glory days with the Pirates as Scrap Iron. Like McKeon, Garner, had been a middling manager -- he was 563-617 with the Brewers and Tigers from 1992-2002 -- who was summoned to resuscitate a sinking team.

Says Garner, "If I really wanted to do this job again -- if I really wanted to manage again -- and I took on the Astros and the Astros didn't really do anything and we would have stayed the way we were and finished third in the division and didn't make a run at the wild card, well, then there's a chance I don't get another shot at managing again."

Garner has managed aggressively, as if he's got nothing to lose, and that's exactly what the Astros needed. As for handling struggling veterans, he has both benched them (Morgan Ensberg and Brad Ausmus) and dropped them in the order (Jeff Bagwell). He has turned the Astros loose on the basepaths -- the Astros ranked 13th in the NL in stolen bases when Garner inherited the team; since then, only the run-happy Brewers have swiped more bags. This Astros team begins October in a far different state than its predecessors: this team no longer relies on the three-run homer; they are adept at manufacturing runs. They are better built for October.

Garner's biggest contribution to the Astros, however, is his personality. Houston teams of the past have been knocked for wilting in pressure situations -- they have not won a postseason series in four appearances since 1997. Garner is the Astros' Dr. Phil, and the similarities go beyond the name and chalkboard eraser moustache the two share. Garner managers his team with emotion; he is a passionate, fiery leader, one prone to outbursts of joy and frustration from his perch in the dugout. In August, with Houston stumbling in its pursuit of the wild card, Garner held a team meeting to talk about what to him was a troubling statistic: the Astros hadn't come from behind to win a game in the ninth inning since July, 2003. "It was a big elephant in the room," says Garner, "so I said, let's just get it out in the open and talk about it. Guys got up and said some things that needed to be said." Says Jeff Bagwell, "We just talked about how we shouldn't put so much pressure on ourselves and just trust the guy next to us, that guys would pick each other up. And we talked about what different things could be done in certain scenarios."

Less than a week after that meeting, the Astros rallied from three runs down in the ninth against the Expos to win, 5-4, on Aug. 15. Since that game, the Astros went an astonishing 36-10.

Garner embraces emotion: earlier this season Bagwell called out Roy Oswalt for drilling an Expos pitcher. The two players confronted each other in the clubhouse the next morning, and when asked about it, Garner says, "I'd rather see them fighting in [the clubhouse], with fists going, rather than it festering and finding out about it two weeks later with groups whispering in different sides of the clubhouse."

And so under Garner's leadership, the Astros march forward with the best starting duo in the playoffs (Roger Clemens & Roy Oswalt), the most dominant closer in the majors (Brad Lidge) not named Mariano Rivera, and a formidable offense that is peaking at the right time. If the Braves were playing any other team in the NL right now, they'd be the pick to advance to the NLCS, but Houston's too hot. The Astros will beat the Braves in four.

Other picks: A team starting Jeff Weaver and Jose Lima in a three-man rotation is going nowhere. In an already thin bullpen, Eric Gagne is hurting -- perhaps the result of being overworked in August in September. St. Louis over the Dodgers in three. Meanwhile in the AL, the fashionable pick is the Twins, but beyond Johan Santana the Twins are too thin in their rotation, have too little firepower in their lineup, and have too little experience in the bullpen (Yes, Joe Nathan is 44-for-47 in save opportunities, but he has seen nothing like an October inning at Yankee Stadium). In the end, the Yankees' mighty lineup overpowers. Yankees in four.

But given the Yankees' sad state of starting pitching, the feeling here is that the winner of the Red Sox-Angels series will be the AL rep in the World Series. Curt Schilling is the difference maker here. Red Sox in a classic five-game series.

Other thoughts from the week that was:

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Vladimir Guerrero is the true AL MVP. Yes, perhaps the Blog deserves the inevitable accusations of flip flopping and sending mixed messages. Only one week ago in this exact space, the Blog was certain that Mark Teixeira deserved the accolade. But haven't we learned that it's one thing to be certain, and another to be certain and wrong? Guerrero made a convincing case for himself last week as he carried his Angels to the postseason. Guerrero is the Blog's revised AL MVP pick.

What were the execs at FOX thinking? It was the single biggest travesty committed by TV executives since Andy Richter Controls the Universe was killed after a marvelous one-year run. Last Saturday was the most important day of the baseball season, with two division races being decided in two games. And yet as the Dodgers-Giants and Athletics-Angels games came to their stirring conclusion, here in New York City, FOX -- the alleged "home of Major League Baseball" -- was showing ... M.A.S.H.? Are you kidding me? Fox execs had chosen to broadcast the barely meaningful Cubs-Braves game at 1 pm ET on Saturday. Because of blackout rules, the two clinching games weren't available on MLB's Extra Innings package, and so most of the faithful were reduced to clicking the reload button on their web browsers. Good practice, I guess, for the fantasy football live scoring button clicking on Sunday afternoon.

Bob Melvin, fired over the weekend by the Mariners, deserved another season. When he arrived in Seattle last season, Melvin inherited a team as vibrant and dangerous as the cast of Cocoon. You have to give Melvin a ton of credit for getting his beaten-down players to compete hard down the stretch as they derailed both the A's and the Rangers in their postseason pusuit. The Mariners won seven of their last 12 games against the Angels, A's, and Rangers. No team was a bigger spoiler down the stretch.

Unnecessary Apprentice thought of the week: Not since the 2004 Cubs has there been a more dysfunctional bunch than the whiny, back-stabbing, and utterly incompetent ladies at Apex. What is The Donald waiting for? If he were a smart ratings man, Trump would ax the entire group Thursday, right after the Will & Grace credits roll. No need to sit through six weeks of this nonsense.

But enough griping. The playoffs, after all, are finally here, and it's on to Atlanta ...