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Garner caught in backfire

HOUSTON -- If Andy Pettitte hadn't gone to visit his friendly neighborhood elbow surgeon, Phil Garner never would have been in this mess.

If Wade Miller's shoulder hadn't started yelping every time he threw a baseball, Phil Garner never would have been in this mess.

If the Houston Astros had just arrived in October with the aces-wild starting rotation they thought they were building for games like these, Phil Garner never would have been in this mess.

But all those "ifs" -- and 300,000 bucks -- just enable you to afford the salary of Pete Munro. And because Phil Garner decided Munro was a guy he couldn't bring himself to pitch Sunday, a playoff game -- and possibly an entire series -- abruptly reeled out of control on Garner and his Astros, in a ballpark where they'd nearly forgotten how to lose.

They hadn't been on the wrong end of a baseball game played at Minute Maid Park in seven weeks. But they sure wound up on the wrong end of Game 4 of the National League Division Series on Sunday, in more ways than one.

They were three runs ahead and 12 outs away from sending the Atlanta Braves home for golf and hunting season. But then Roger Clemens, the living legend whom Garner had chosen to start on three days' rest, called it a day. Which started a chain reaction of disasters that turned a 5-2 Astros lead into Braves 6, Astros 5.

So as both teams pointed their airplanes toward Atlanta for a spectacular Game 5 Monday, the second-guesses of a manager who, for a month and a half, could do no wrong, were reverberating all over the heart of Texas.

"We didn't close it out," Garner said softly, after the Astros' record fell to 0-6 in franchise history in games that would have clinched a postseason series. "But we've been doing things very unusual for the last couple of months. ... It certainly is going to be difficult. But that's what we've been doing -- difficult things."

The question, though, was whether they'd just made things a lot more difficult than they had to.

And, being the considerate, compassionate baseball chroniclers we are, we won't even force you to contemplate that one. That answer is: Yes. For all kinds of reasons:

  • Up 2 games to 1, Garner didn't have to start Clemens, who admitted his legs still haven't recovered from the virus that turned him greener than Tal Smith's Hill last weekend. But the manager ran Clemens out there on short rest anyway -- and got only five innings out of him. Which created all kinds of trouble over the post-Roger portion of the afternoon.

  • Reliever Chad Qualls then marched in to relieve Clemens and gave up a game-tying, crowd-anaesthetizing, three-run, upper-deck homer to Braves first baseman Adam LaRoche. And that development led Garner into a double switch that caused him to take out his leadoff man, Craig Biggio, even though the game was tied and Biggio was already 3 for 4, with a double and homer.

  • An inning after that, Garner waved for his closer and most trusted reliever, Brad Lidge, with a man on in the eighth inning of a still-tied game. But this time, the manager didn't double-switch. Which, naturally, forced him to pinch-hit for Lidge when the Astros got two runners on in the bottom of the eighth. So Lidge was done for the day -- having thrown only seven pitches.

  • That meant Garner had already blitzed through the best of his bullpen many outs sooner than he wanted to. But somebody still had to pitch the ninth. And that somebody turned out to be Russ Springer -- a man who was sitting home retired as recently as this June.

  • Which led to the final, ill-fated decision of the day -- the decision to let Springer pitch to J.D. Drew with first base open and the winning run on second with two outs in the ninth, even though on-deck hitter Marcus Giles was right-handed, and happened to be 0 for his last 12, with five strikeouts. As if there were any doubt, given how Garner's day had gone, Drew promptly singled in the winning run.

    For sheer drama, maybe, none of these decisions was up there with Grady Little's Pedro Nightmare. But if the Astros don't win Game 5, the impact could well be the same for a team that was never particularly interested in transforming itself into the Cubs-Red Sox Curse Kings of the Southwest.

    At least the Cubs and Red Sox won the World Series once upon a time. The Astros, on the other hand, have never gotten out of the first round, no matter how many Nolan Ryans, Mike Scotts and even (gulp) Roger Clemens they've sent to the mound in their star-crossed October history. Which now consists of eight series.

    So we regret to report that Phil Garner's trip to the postgame interview room this Sunday wasn't quite as much fun as that champagne shower he'd taken the Sunday before. Heck, Bill Clinton's session with the Whitewater special prosecutor was less pointed than this.

  • Why did he take out Biggio? Because he'd been doing it all year, Garner said: "I do it in a tie game. I do it when we're ahead. I don't do it when we're down."

    But the fact is, since this Astros run for glory began on Aug. 15, Garner had taken out Biggio only once in eight previous games in which they found themselves tied after the sixth inning or later. In all the others, he either left Biggio in for the duration or waited to put in a defensive replacement after the Astros took the lead. So subbing for him in this spot, in this game, deservedly raised many an eyebrow.

    "Hey, I'm not here to second-guess anything," said Biggio, at his diplomatic best. "Everyone wants to play. But it's a team game. It's time to put our little personal issues aside and just play."

  • OK, so why didn't Garner make a similar double switch when he brought Lidge into the game? Because Jeff Kent had made the last out -- and "I wanted Kent to stay in the ball game," Garner said. "I turned to our bench coach (John Tamargo) and said, 'Kent will be a factor in this game.' "

    Sure enough, Kent was a factor, all right. Just not quite the way the manager had in mind. Kent came to bat against John Smoltz with one out in the ninth and runners on first and third -- and bounced into a game-ending double play.

  • Then again, if Garner felt keeping Lidge in the game was a priority, he could always have sucked it up and let him bat against Smoltz with two on and two out in the eighth. But Lidge is 0 for two years, batted once all season and voted with his manager, saying: "I wouldn't have bet a whole lot on me getting a hit in that situation."

    Garner's very logical reasoning for that call: Pinch-hitter Orlando Palmeiro "had some success off Smoltz (1 for 2 lifetime). So if I designed an opportunity to win a ball game off Smoltz, I've got Palmeiro in a situation to do it."

    And Palmeiro almost did. He missed beating out a chopper into the second-base hole only because Smoltz made a sensational effort to cover first and outrun him to the bag by a step.

  • But because the game was still tied, that set up Garner's final major decision -- whether to walk Drew with first base open in the ninth. Left-handed hitters actually hit 70 points lower against Springer (.240) this year than right-handed hitters (.310). So Garner opted not to walk Drew -- at least "not intentionally," the manager said. "We gave him way too good of a pitch to hit."

    That pitch was a 3-2 fastball that was supposed to jam Drew, but instead tailed back over the plate. So Drew made yet another Garner decision look worse than it was by roping it to right-center to put the Braves ahead. Whereupon Giles stalked to the plate and (what else?) struck out. It was that kind of day.

  • All of this other stuff, however, just grew out of the ripple effect of Garner's most significant judgment of the day -- to start Clemens.

    On one hand, the Astros had won 10 straight games Clemens had started. On the other, the decision to start him -- or just about anybody -- on three days' rest this time of year is one that has sunk many a managerial ship in many a recent October.

    Over the last six postseasons, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, Clemens was the 40th pitcher to start a game on short rest. Teams taking that gamble now have a '62-Mets-like record of 11-29 in those 40 games. The record of those pitchers themselves is 7-20, with an ERA north of 5.00.

    Clemens' history, meanwhile, shows he has been even worse than that on three days' rest. Over the last 14 years, he's now 1-4, with two no-decisions, in seven starts on three days' rest (counting the postseason), with a 7.00 ERA. He has averaged five innings a start -- which is exactly how many he pitched Sunday.

    "My legs were trying to shut down on me," he said afterward. "About the fourth or fifth inning, my legs really got tired."

    Clemens had thrown only 87 pitches when he departed. And he'd just finished off only his second 1-2-3 inning of the day. But Garner said they'd had a conversation after the fourth inning, and "he was running on fumes then."

    "His velocity came down quite a bit," said catcher Brad Ausmus. "That last inning, especially, he was really forcing the ball up there. He was able to get out of it pretty quickly. But I think everyone watching knew that was his last inning."

    Clemens said his fatigue had more to do with how sick he'd been last week than with that missing day of rest. But regardless of what caused it, if a team is only going to get five innings out of a pitcher it is bringing back early to, theoretically, go for the kill, what's the point?

    It may be a major plummet from Clemens to Pete Munro based on pure stuff. But the Astros still went 6-3 in Munro's last nine starts. And if they were going to play one of those starter-goes-five, bullpen-scrambles-to-cover kind of games, then they were much better off playing it with Munro than Clemens.

    By pushing Clemens up, Garner now has to turn to Roy Oswalt to start Game 5 on three days' rest, too -- for only the second time in his career. (He gave up three runs in six innings in a loss this July 11, in that one.)

    So while Oswalt might re-enact the Josh Beckett Story, the odds are against him. And had Clemens been going in Game 5, with full rest, Oswalt would have been available in relief behind him.

    Now that's out. And even if the Astros win to advance, they'll have burned their two best starters to do it -- and either have to bring back Clemens again on short rest in Game 2 of the NLCS, or go with Brandon Backe and Munro in the first two games. Neither option looks real attractive right now.

    But one thing you can say about this team is that it wouldn't be here right now if it hadn't already done the impossible.

    On the morning of Aug. 15, the Astros trailed six teams in the wild-card race -- including the Mets -- and were tied with a seventh (the Reds). Then they merely unfurled the best finish after Aug. 15 by any National League team since Bobby Thomson's 1951 Giants. And we would be remiss not to note that they couldn't have pulled that off without Phil Garner's energy and leadership.

    "For the last three weeks," Ausmus said, "we played having to win every game, it seems like. So this isn't a new situation for the members of this team. We've been on the cusp of being eliminated numerous times.

    "We've seen the end of the plank," Ausmus lyricized. "We've seen the shark-infested waters below."

    Well, they're still here. So we know they've dodged more sharks in their day than Jacques Cousteau. Which means that, at this point, Game 5 in Turner Field ought to look like just another day in the shark tank for a team the whole darned National League aquarium hasn't found a way to kill.

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.