ATLANTA -- From a fan's perspective, Thursday's game between the Houston Astros and Atlanta Braves may be described as heart-stopping, nerve-wracking, exciting or gut-wrenching.
For the Astros, the only word they could use was disappointing. Hoping to bring a two-game lead to Minute Maid Park this weekend, the Astros had to settle for a series split in Atlanta, dropping a 4-2 decision to the Braves in an 11-inning game that ended with a two-run homer by Rafael Furcal off Dan Miceli.
"Obviously, when you win the first game, you'd like to win the second game, but that's not the case," Jeff Bagwell said.
"That's not what happened. You take it for what it is. It's 1-1, and we're going home to our home park."
By the time Furcal deposited Miceli's offering in the seats just below the near-empty upper deck in right field, two of the league's best closers -- if not the best -- were out of the game, and it was up to the next class of relievers to finish.
Manager Phil Garner raised some eyebrows when he brought in Brad Lidge in the seventh with Furcal on third and one out. Lidge, who was often called upon in the eighth this season, pitched in the seventh only one other time since taking over as the full-time closer in June. That game, coincidentally, was against the Braves, in a 6-5 loss at home on Aug. 5.
But Garner felt a well-rested Lidge could shoulder the load, even if it meant keeping him to close the game out in the ninth.
"We don't want to give this game away and save somebody for Saturday," Garner said. "This is very, very important. I feel like Lidge has been so good that you put him in there.
"If you take a look at the game, the flow of the game, we really weren't putting a lot of offense on the board, either. So I felt like we better try to shut it down."
Lidge caught some lucky breaks in his first inning of work.
Swinging for the fences
With Furcal on third and one out, an errant pitch by Lidge scooted only a few feet from Raul Chavez. The catcher recovered the ball quicker than Furcal expected, and when Chavez tossed the ball to Lidge, Furcal was out by such a large margin he didn't even attempt to slide. Lidge struck out Marcus Giles to end the inning.
But Lidge didn't have the same fortune in the eighth. Chipper Jones walked, advanced to third on Johnny Estrada's base hit and scored on Adam LaRoche's double to left-center. Still, Lidge was able to keep the Braves' damage to a minimum when he coaxed a grounder from Andruw Jones that allowed Morgan Ensberg to throw out Wilson Betemit at home. Charles Thomas struck out to end the inning.
"Garner had called down to the bullpen and said, 'You might come in in the seventh, depending on the situation out there,'" Lidge said. "I was ready. I'd say I wasn't pleased with how I pitched, though. It's one of those situations where you need to get the job done. I didn't."
John Smoltz, on the other hand, did. The Astros did nothing against the closer, who entered in the eighth and didn't leave until after the 10th. That gave the Braves plenty of time to find a way to score in one of a multitude of walk-off opportunities home teams are afforded in extra frames.
"It was not a good pitch," Miceli said of Furcal's home run. "I should have buried it a little more. It was a splitter and I think it hooked into a sweet spot. I knew it was out."
"It's tough to play extra-inning games when you're not at your home park, because you don't get your last at-bat," said Bagwell, who knocked a solo homer in the first inning off Mike Hampton. "We didn't do enough in the amount of time that we had. No one thought it was going to be easy."
For a while, 20-game winner Roy Oswalt was making it look pretty simple. He held the Braves to one run over 6 1/3 innings and carried a shutout into the seventh before Furcal singled home Dewayne Wise.
Roy Oswalt / P
Weight: 185 lbs
Bats: R / Throws: R
Oswalt, who had thrown 88 pitches, said he wasn't tired when Garner lifted him for Lidge. But Garner felt confident he was making the right move by putting in the closer, who set a National League record with 157 strikeouts in relief during the regular season.
"We've seen him pitch a lot better," Garner said. "He's been, over the course of the last couple months, just lights out. They got to him a little bit today. They put some balls in play. He didn't get the strikes earlier in the count like he has been doing. But it did show he's been a little bit human, because he's pitched very, very well for us."
Disappointed they're not leaving town with a 2-0 lead, the Astros' next goal is to make sure they win the Division Series at home and avoid a Game 5 in Atlanta.
"Better teams need to rebound after getting beat," Jeff Kent said. "You are going to get beat. You're playing the best teams in baseball in the playoffs. You're going to have your good days. The playoffs mean one play, one pitch can determine the ballgame."
"The thing that we have going is a great feeling coming home," Bagwell said. "We've won 18 straight there. Obviously, we feel pretty comfortable there. That's what we have to take going into Saturday's game."
"It's disappointing we lost, but the big thing is we're going home and they get to come to our place," Oswalt said. "We've been playing pretty well there and hopefully we'll pick up where we left off when we left."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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