<
>

That '70s Show

ATLANTA -- It was a baseball game out of 1974, not a baseball game out of 2004.

It was Goose Gossage vs. Dan Quisenberry. Mike Marshall vs. Rollie Fingers. Tug McGraw vs. Rawly Eastwick.

It was a baseball game in which, for just about a solid hour, every pitch was thrown by the two closers. In one corner: Houston's Brad Lidge. In the other: Atlanta's John Smoltz.

It was a game in which those two guys combined to get 17 outs, throw 84 pitches and face 21 hitters. And neither of them got a save. You can watch another million baseball games. It will be a long, long time until you see one like that again.

It may be true that Lidge and Smoltz were both long gone Thursday evening by the time the Braves won this classic 4-2 on an 11th-inning, season-saving home run by Rafael Furcal -- the first postseason walk-off homer by any Brave since Eddie Mathews, off Bob Grim, in Game 4 of the 1957 World Series.

But that homer, and that outcome, don't mean that Brad Lidge and John Smoltz were just another afterthought, or just another a subplot, in this game. No way.

When we think back on it 50 years from now, they'll be what we remember -- two closers out there, firing what seemed like a thousand pitches, collecting eight outs before the ninth inning started.

They don't play baseball games like this anymore. At least they don't play any in April, May, June, July, August or September.

But when the calendar changes to October, goofy things happen. Managers get crazy. Three-out pitchers become eight-out pitchers. And every game feels like the most important game in the history of the universe.

"It just shows the magnitude of each game that every manager feels in these series," said Smoltz, after the longest outing (three innings) of his bullpen career -- regular-season, postseason, any kind of season. "When you play these best-of-fives, it's not the kind of series where you feel you can just sit back and wait till you get lucky. You have to approach each game as the last game."

So there they were Thursday, in the seventh inning, when the insanity began.

The Astros had a 2-1 lead at the time. They were eight outs away from taking a 2-games-to-0 lead back to Houston, where they have won 18 games in a row. And then, suddenly, out of the dugout popped manager Phil Garner to go talk to his favorite umpiring crew for a few minutes.

His official story was that he'd been trying to phone the bullpen to see if his closer was ready, but he kept getting a busy signal. The Braves' official story was that he was just stalling to give a ninth-inning pitcher more time to get loose enough to become a seventh-inning pitcher.

But at this point, we don't care what really happened, or who was telling the truth. We don't even care if it turns out the phone was disconnected because the Braves didn't pay their phone bill.

What we care about was that there was one out in the seventh inning, and the manager was bringing in his closer.

Apparently, Phil Garner didn't care that his good friend, Ron Gardenhire, had just finished getting skewered on talk shows all across America for asking his closer (Joe Nathan) to go three innings in a Twins-Yankees playoff game the night before. Because Garner wasn't just asking Brad Lidge to be his own setup man in this game. He was asking Brad Lidge to become his set up man's setup man.

"I feel good about it," Garner said of his decision afterward, after Lidge had blown a save and the Astros had let a winnable game turn into a potentially haunting loss. "And I'd do it again."

In fact, he claimed, he'd done it before. "A couple of times."

Well, not exactly. Turned out he had brought Lidge into one game this year in the seventh inning -- Aug. 5, against (whaddayaknow) the Braves. But that was a tie game, and Lidge pitched two innings, kept it tied, then departed for a pinch hitter.

Never, at any point, had Garner brought Lidge into a game in the seventh inning and left him there. In fact, no manager had brought any closer into a postseason game in the seventh inning and left him in to complete a save of more than two innings in 16 years (since Game 4, 1988 World Series, when Tommy Lasorda did it with Jay Howell).

But when the call came, Lidge's first reaction was not: "My manager has just lost his mind." His first reaction was: "It's October.Why not?"

"He'd kind of let us know earlier he might do that," Lidge said. "Sometimes in big games, you have to switch your game plan a little bit. I understand that."

Now we should make it clear that Lidge is not your typical 21st-century closer. He had 21 outings this year in which he got more than three outs. But he hadn't been asked to get this many outs since May 31, 2003, back when he was still a rookie setup man.

So as he trotted toward the mound, he told himself not to think about all those outs he was going to have to get.

"Obviously, I was trying not to think about how this was more innings than I usually have to pitch," he said. "I knew this was a little different. But at the same time, this is the postseason. You've got to gear up to do things like that. And everybody should be ready to do that."

He wriggled out of his first jam, in the seventh, when catcher Raul Chavez made a fabulous throw from his knees to throw out Furcal trying to score on a semi-wild pitch.

And then, just moments after that play, this game really got interesting -- because the doors to that Atlanta bullpen opened, and out sprinted Smoltz, to turn this into an epic closer mano a mano.

For the first 16 innings of this series, Smoltz had been able to do nothing more than sit and watch, a smokestack of frustration pouring out of his ears. So three innings on this night was nothing. He was ready to pitch about six innings.

"He was really angry [Wednesday]," said Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone. "And I know why -- because he wants to be out there at the beginning of the game, facing Clemens. So we were putting him in there in the eighth inning today. We didn't care what the score was. You're in an urgent situation. So to not use him -- that would be stupid."

It sure can be a confusing world, this world of October baseball. In one series, Gardenhire was the one being accused of looking stupid -- because he'd left his closer in for a third inning and it hadn't worked. Yet here in another series, here were two veteran managers doing that at the same time in the same game -- on the theory it was stupid not to. Amazing.

As Lidge headed for the dugout and Smoltz almost simultaneously headed for the mound, it was clear, with all those outs to go, that they were both out there for the duration -- may the best closer win. How much fun was that?

Brad Lidge. John Smoltz. Which one would you take?

Based just on the stats from this season, if you had to pick just one guy, it actually would be hard not to pick Lidge.

His ERA (1.90) was 86 points lower. The average of opposing hitters against him (.174) was 70 points lower. And Lidge not only had more strikeouts (157) than Smoltz. He had more than all but 15 starting pitchers in the league.

Still, this was Smoltz's 38th postseason game -- and Lidge's first. So John Smoltz knew what he was getting himself into. Lidge was only about to find out.

"I know he's done this all year," Smoltz said of Lidge. "He's got 100-something innings. And he's got like 6,000 strikeouts. So he's done it long enough. It's not that big a deal. The reality of this game was that, with the day off [Friday], everybody knew the normal rules were out the window."

Maybe it had something to do with nerves or inexperience or just the nutty October baseball karma. In his second inning, Lidge allowed the first four hitters he faced in the eighth to reach base. And finally, Adam LaRoche smoked a hanging slider off a wall painting of Dale Murphy in left-center, for a game-tying double.

Smoltz, meanwhile, was at his October best. He roared through three hitless innings. And although he did walk two in his third inning out there, he ended his evening with his hardest pitch of the night -- a 97 mph flameball that froze Jason Lane for strike three.

Those 45 pitches Smoltz threw were his most since June 9, 2001 -- the last start of his career. They were the easy part, he said later. The hard part came after his first hit in five years -- a leadoff single against Lidge in the ninth.

"Throwing the three innings was no big deal," he said. "But the intensity and the adrenalin of standing on second base -- I can't tell you how tough that was -- just because I hadn't been there for a long time. And I thought I was going to be the winning run. I was out there thinking of doing everything I could possibly do to score that run."

Including stealing third, by the way.

"Oh, I'd have stolen third," he laughed. "After I got that hit, I was honestly thinking of stealing second and third. That's what happens with my crazy mind."

He never did get that green light, though. And he never did score, either, because Lidge sucked it up to pitch out of one last mess by striking out J.D. Drew on his 39th pitch of the night.

Naturally, Lidge then went back to the dugout and volunteered to pitch a fourth inning. Garner did the only sane thing and pinch-hit for him in the 10th.

An hour later, Lidge stood at his locker, still angry that he'd let the most important lead of his career disappear. He had also lived out a thrill -- the thrill of dueling one of his heroes in the October twilight.

"He didn't give up a run, and I did," said Lidge, a guy poised to join Smoltz in the Elite Closers Club (if he hasn't already). "So the bottom line is, he did what I wanted to do. But in the big picture, he's a guy I'd like to become. He's one of my role models."

What has made Smoltz the October legend he is is that he understands what it means to rise to the moment in games like this.

"The adrenalin rush you get in games like this," he said, "is something you don't get in the regular season. That's what I miss and love about the playoffs."

Three innings? Forty-five pitches? Dueling closers? What's the problem? It's only a problem, says John Smoltz, if you let it be.

"My makeup is, if you believe you can do it, 100 percent, then you're going to do it," Smoltz said. "But if you come in there thinking, 'What if I do this? What if I do that?' That's when you get yourself in trouble."

Two closers marched into an October baseball game Thursday, trying to do what closers aren't supposed to be able to do anymore. Two managers waved for them, too, defying the book on what modern managers are supposed to be allowed to do.

"You've got to go with your best in an urgent situation," said Mazzone. "And this is an urgent situation. This best-of-five is ridiculous. It's a freaking joke. You're on pins and needles, man."

For Ron Gardenhire and Phil Garner, the pins and needles led them into a major gamble that didn't work. For Bobby Cox, it did.

You can call them nuts if you want. But the reality is, it's just October -- when normal rules of managerial conduct are suspended in the name of desperation and survival.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Comments