Oswalt slips, picks himself back up
Righty struggles in second inning, stumbles off mound in third
HOUSTON -- The Astros watched Roy Oswalt lose the lead in a long, frustrating second inning. Then they watched him lose his balance and hit the dirt in the third.
It was not looking good.
"Looked like somebody might have shot him," Lance Berkman said with mock concern. "They probably want to increase security for these things."
The only wound Oswalt suffered was a bruised ego, and the rest of his 7 1/3-inning stint took care of that. After appearing lost on his own mound in the early going, Oswalt found his way, and so did the Astros, who beat the Braves on Saturday night and moved within one game of a return trip to the National League Championship Series.
Oswalt retired 17 of the final 21 batters he faced and got a lift from Mike Lamb's third-inning homer as Houston won, 7-3, in front of the largest crowd in the six-year history of Minute Maid Park. The Astros lead the NLDS two games to one.
Oddly, Oswalt got a big lift when he hit his low point.
The game was tied, 2-2, in the top of the third and Oswalt was coming off a dismal, 30-pitch second inning in which he lost a 2-0 lead on two-out, two-strike singles by the No. 8 hitter, Brian McCann, and the opposing pitcher, Jorge Sosa.
The third inning did not begin any better. Oswalt slipped and fell on the mound during Marcus Giles' at-bat, but had the wherewithal not to lob a pitch toward the plate. It was an awkward moment in front of 43,759 fans and a slew of giggling teammates, but it might have been just what Oswalt needed to break the ice.
"I'm so much of a drive guy, power guy, going toward the plate that if I don't have a real good toe hold, my back foot slips off the back of the rubber," he said. "Once my foot got away, I started to throw the pitch anyway. My mindset changed real quick, 'Don't lob it up there and let the guy hit it out.'"
His next pitch was a called third strike, and Oswalt never slipped again.
"That's the last place you want it to happen, but what are you going to do?" Astros second baseman Craig Biggio said. "You laugh at yourself and move on. You know, as long as he didn't hurt himself, that was the biggest thing."
Biggio was right on both counts: Oswalt did not hurt himself, and he did laugh about it.
"Only I could fall down on the mound in the playoffs," he cracked.
Giles was the first of seven strikeouts for Oswalt in a span of 12 batters. He surrendered only one more run, which scored in the eighth, when Andruw Jones greeted reliever Dan Wheeler with an RBI double.
By that time, the Astros had built a commanding lead thanks to Lamb's go-ahead home run in the bottom of the third inning and a four-run seventh against four Braves pitchers.
"Roy's whole approach, looked to me like it changed," Garner said. "He got to be the Roy of old."
It had been some time since the Astros had seen that guy. Oswalt surrendered two or fewer runs in 18 of his final 28 starts, but he struggled to string together dominant outings like he had in June and July. After going 1-3 with a 5.81 ERA in August, Oswalt rebounded a bit in September, but surrendered at least three runs in six innings during three of his final five starts.
Oswalt said the key to Saturday's turnaround was the re-emergence of his nasty overhand curveball.
"The last month or two, it hasn't been working as well as I wanted it to," he said. "I've been trying to get too much over the top of it. Tonight I had a real good feel for it."
His fastball command improved after the third-inning stumble, too, and Oswalt started painting the corners at 96-97 mph. That was not happening back in the second inning, when it looked like Oswalt was in for a long night.
After a 1-2-3 first inning, Oswalt was staked to a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the frame. Then he suddenly struggled through a 30-pitch second that included a strange balk call, two walks and three singles that could have been much worse if not for a well-executed double play by third baseman Morgan Ensberg.
McCann, the Braves' rookie catcher and a thorn in the Astros' side in Games 1 and 2, put the Braves on the board with an RBI single, but Oswalt thought he escaped further damage on a 2-2 pitch to the Braves' light-hitting pitcher, Sosa. Oswalt even took a few steps toward the home dugout, expecting a strike three call from home plate umpire Jeff Nelson.
But Nelson called it ball three, and Sosa grounded Oswalt's next pitch into left field for an RBI single that knotted the game, 2-2.
"After that, I calmed down a lot," he said. "I started trying to mix up the fastball, curveball a lot tonight. I had a pretty good slider most of the night, too."
Now the Astros have a pretty good shot to move on in the postseason.
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.