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So much has been made about the past during these baseball playoffs that you'd think the Fox network had turned into the History Channel. I can barely remember what city I was in four days ago, and yet Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell's collective postseason stats from 1997 to 2001 are seared into my brain like times tables, and Aaron Boone's Game 7 homer from the 2003 ALCS runs on a loop in my sleep.
Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, here we are again, on the eve of yet another straight-to-ESPN Classic Yankees-Red Sox series, and the oversaturated coverage leaves me with one thought: Will I be lucky enough to get a glimpse of Pedro's 28-inch Mini-Me at Yankee Stadium tonight?
Few League Championship Series are fated to immortality before the first pitch has been thrown, but this series, regardless of the result, is likely to be among the unforgettable. Red Sox win, hell freezes over. Yankees win, and the Red Sox's finest team in years falls to the worst Yankees team in years, once and for all -- or, at least until next October -- confirming that, like ghosts in the Lincoln Bedroom, the supernatural rules over playoff baseball.
Monday night, the playoff ghosts were nowhere to be found in Atlanta, where the Astros overcame history -- they hadn't won a playoff series of any kind while dropping 22 of 30 postseason games -- as much as the Braves.
And yet, the Astros nearly gave this series away. Watching Phil Garner during this series provided more "What was he thinking?" moments than a viewing of David O' Russell's I Heart Huckabees. Garner has done a terrific job with this Astros team, as the Blog noted last week, but we're being generous when we give old Scrap Iron a "C-" for his job in the first round. Luckily, Garner needed only to put his team on cruise control last night and let his sluggers carry him to St. Louis. He nearly got burned when he opted to stick with a tiring Roy Oswalt in the fifth inning with a one-run lead and Adam LaRoche, the Game 4 hero, at the plate with a man on second. LaRoche's fly ball landed only a few feet shy of Turner Field's center-field wall.
One of the residuals of Josh Beckett's virtuoso playoff performance last October has been the increased use of aces on three days rest. Garner starting Roger Clemens on short rest in Game 4 on Saturday was indefensible. Forget that Clemens is 42 years old. In Game 1, Clemens was visibly exhausted and clearly showed effects of the stomach virus that kept him in bed just days earlier. Clemens logged 117 pitches in his earlier start. Pitch Pete Munro in Game 4, and if there's a win-at all-cost Game 5, go with Clemens on full rest with Oswalt available out of the bullpen.
Simply put, Garner cost the Astros Game 4. The manager botched a double-switch situation, forcing him to take out Biggio in a tie game. Consequently, Garner had to pinch-hit for uber-closer Brad Lidge when the Astros got two runners on in the bottom of the eighth. Garner erred when he let right-hander Russ Springer pitch to J.D. Drew with the winning run on second and first base open with two outs in the ninth -- even though the hitter on deck, the far less dangerous Marcus Giles, is right-handed and was mired in an 0 for 12 rut.
When I talked to GM Gerry Hunsicker just days after Garner was hired in July, he said that one of the reasons the Astros liked Garner was his unconventional, aggressive management style. "He isn't afraid to make the politically incorrect move," Hunsicker said. That rang true last week. Sometimes you even wonder if Garner makes these TiVo-worthy managerial moves for the sake of making them. You can be sure that Scrap Iron will continue to roll the dice in the NLCS.
The Blog will stick to its picks from last week -- Astros over the Cardinals (in six) and Red Sox over the Yankees (also in six) -- though after watching St. Louis in L.A. (and getting drenched with champagne while interviewing Ray King in the Cardinals clubhouse), we feel less confident about Houston's chances. It just doesn't bode well for the Astros that Munro, Houston's Game 1 starter, will likely get two starts against the mighty Cardinals' lineup. Brandon Backe will go in Game 2.
Other notes from the road:
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Graybeards in the Dodger Stadium press box who have been covering baseball longer than Dan Rather has been announcing the news were as stunned as I was at the sight of an impromptu handshake line at the end of Game 4 on Sunday. "What are we, in Little League?" asked a perplexed (and slightly agitated) Dodgers beat reporter.
New rule: Spring baseball preview issues cannot pick Atlanta anywhere lower than second in the NL East until the Braves' streak of 13 straight division titles actually is snapped. When all those 'zines say that this is The Year the Streak Comes to an End, chances are, it's not. Nobody is better at reloading his team than John Schuerholz, the Frank Gehry of baseball GMs. The Braves will contend in 2005.
LaRoche finally showed why Schuerholz and the Atlanta organization love him so much. LaRoche's clutch home run Sunday was one of Atlanta's top moments of the season, and the lefty hit .354 with five homers and 17 RBIs in his last 27 games this season. Fantasy geeks, take note: LaRoche is due for a breakout season next year.
It was disheartening to see MLB and the NFL give such light penalties to Rafael Furcal and Jamal Lewis.
A nice Top 10 list by the 10 Spot on the best high school sports movies of all time last week, with one glaring omission: Where was the cult fave Varsity Blues? Meanwhile, a big thumbs up to Friday Night Lights, the new Peter Berg film based on the H.G. Bissinger's 1990 account of high school football in West Texas. The worst thing Berg (who also directed the dreadful Rock movie The Rundown and played a detective in the equally unwatchable Corky Romano) could have done with Bissinger's book was to give it a glossy Remember the Titans-like treatment, but FNL has, rather, a gritty, Hoop Dreams-style that is both unique and powerful.
Any Given Sunday's dizzying but exhilarating on-the-field action scenes were realistic but also somehow cartoonish, because of the distracting made-for-Arena football fictitious team names and uniforms. FNL's action feels 100 percent real. It's the best sports movie since Jerry Maguire, and it also makes The Blog's list of the Top 10 Movies of 2004 (so far) -- up there with Maria Full of Grace, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Garden State.