09/23/2003 11:09 PM ET
Nightmare frame drops Astros
By Alyson Footer / MLB.com
HOUSTON -- To commemorate the stretch run during the final week of the playoff race, the Astros encouraged fans to wear red in support of the home team in a campaign they named "See Red."
On Tuesday at Minute Maid Park, there were indeed plenty of people seeing red, figuratively speaking. What was supposed to be a playoff-type matchup between two front-line pitchers was a laugher by the second inning in an eventual 10-3 Astros loss to the San Francisco Giants.
All of the damage was done in the second inning when the Giants plated 10 runs. In Cincinnati, however, the Cubs' Kerry Wood sprinkled his damage evenly over seven one-hit innings, striking out 12 to lead his club to a 6-0 victory over the Reds to take over first place in the National League Central Division race.
The Cubs' magic number is five, meaning any combination of Cubs wins and Astros losses totalling five will give Chicago the division title. The Astros have lost four in a row and are now just 2 1/2 games ahead of the third-place Cardinals, who beat the Brewers, 5-1.
In the fateful second frame, anything that could have gone wrong did. It started with Marquis Grissom's solo homer off Wade Miller (14-13) and didn't end until 12 more men came to the plate. Miller yielded base hits to Benito Santiago and Edgardo Alfonzo and a double to Jose Cruz Jr., and then things got really bad when he walked starting right-hander Jason Schmidt.
Rich Aurilia drew a bases-loaded walk after J.T. Snow's RBI single, and just when the Astros thought they had caught a lucky break when Barry Bonds grounded toward first in what could have been an inning-ending double play, Jeff Bagwell's errant throw to catcher Brad Ausmus allowed Durham to score and, worse yet, continued the inning.
Fast-forward three batters. The bases were still loaded, and Ricky Stone was now pitching to Alfonzo, who launched his third career grand slam and his second of the year.
Ironically, the Giants would not score another run. They logged just two more hits the rest of the night.
"My reflection back to the first inning was, well, I'm not going to be taking this guy [Miller] out in the second," manager Jimy Williams said. "Then his command and his control left him.
"He started off with good stuff and was in the strike zone. Then all of a sudden in the second it started with a home run and it just snowballed. We put nine zeroes up there, but the problem is, in one of those innings there was a one in front of one of those zeroes."
"I had few location problems with the fastball," Miller said. "I was trying to go in on a guy and going over the plate, and he gets a base hit. It wasn't like I was getting hammered up there; I was getting singled to death and a few walks here and there and made for a long inning. I didn't have it in that inning and I blew it."
Added Bagwell: "I made that bad throw, too, that compounded it and then the grand slam and we're out of the ballgame in the second inning. It's not something that you think is going to happen. That's why you have to make big pitches, make big plays and get big hits. They're the Giants. You can't give them a break because they usually take advantage of it. That's why they've got 97 wins."
Miller's short but eventful outing took away some of the glare from the offense, which did very little against Schmidt (17-5), who stifled the Astros to one hit over the first six innings.
Orlando Merced mercifully gave 35,390 fans their first reason to cheer when his double off Schmidt in the seventh inning hit the out-of-town scoreboard in left field and knocked out a square out of the Cubs' line score, now showing nothing but the final score of their win over the Reds.
Jason Lane kept everyone on their feet with a two-run blast that landed well into the Crawford seats, eliminating Schmidt's quest for a shutout. Lane added a second solo shot off Jason Christiansen in the ninth to mark the outfielder's first career multihomer game.
Most teams, even the best ones, will have games like this every once in a while. But the timing of the meltdown couldn't have been worse -- the Astros have five games remaining and now have to make up ground on a Cubs team that plays only Cincinnati and Pittsburgh the rest of the way.
"If we had this happen in the third game of the year, no one would think about it," Geoff Blum said. "But unfortunately, it happened with six games left in the season when we're tied up with Chicago.
"You have a game like this, you start to wonder a little bit. We're OK in the sense that we have five games left and are only one game back. All we can do is go out there and battle our [butt] off and try to win the next five. It's going to be tough, though."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.