Astros bullpen gets it done yet again
Relievers have limited Cards to one run in 10 2/3 innings
HOUSTON -- Houston reliever Mike Gallo did a double-take over his greeting from the sellout crowd at Minute Maid Park on Sunday.
"When I came out of the gate, I heard some boos," Gallo said. "At that point, I'm like, 'These fans are a little upset.' But at the same time, I wanted to prove that everything's going to be OK."
It was nothing against Gallo. It was that Astros starter Brandon Backe had held the Cardinals to two hits and a run in 5 2/3 innings, and the faithful wanted to see more Backe in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series.
But by the end of the 2-1 victory that put the Astros one win from their first World Series, Houston fans were happy to see the left-handed Gallo and the subsequent relievers, righties Chad Qualls, Dan Wheeler and Brad Lidge.
Gallo turned his boos to cheers by throwing one pitch to retire the only hitter he faced, Larry Walker, on an infield grounder with a man on base. Qualls threw a hitless seventh and Wheeler overcame a Mark Grudzielanek infield single to lead off the eighth and earned the victory. Lidge, who has been a dominating closer for two seasons, but has been involved in some white-knuckle innings this series, needed two standout defensive plays, but held on for his third save of the series.
At first, Backe's first inclination was to join the fans in their reaction.
"I have to be honest, when I saw [manager] Phil [Garner] coming out and pointing to the bullpen, I was a little upset," Backe said.
Then he set his competitive instinct aside.
"The bullpen has been our backbone on the team, so if I'm going to give it up to anybody, I'd rather give it up to our bullpen than anybody else," Backe said.
With neither side able to find the type of hits that blow games open, Houston's relievers have been dominant figures in the series. They've held the Cardinals to one run in 10 1/3 innings.
So, why was anyone worried about removing Backe?
"I thought he had struggled," Garner said. "Even though he had only given up one or two hits in the first four innings, he got behind a lot of hitters. He got into a nice little groove in the fifth inning and did a pretty good job to start out the sixth.
"But it had gotten to a point in the game where I just felt like our bullpen was A-OK."
Qualls said, "We've been throwing the ball well all year. Brandon did an excellent job of just minimizing damage in the inning he got in trouble in, limiting them to one run. If he can give us six strong innings and give it over to the bullpen, that's pretty much what we're expecting."
But it wasn't as if the numbers backed the decisions.
Gallo is always prepared for matchups against lefty hitters, but Walker was 1-for-2 in previous confrontations before the grounder to end the sixth.
Garner went to Qualls to start the seventh, although Reggie Sanders, who was leading off the inning, was 5-for-7 against him in regular season and postseason play. But Qualls forced an infield popup and rolled from there.
Wheeler said he didn't feel any pressure until after his scoreless inning.
"When Lidge is out there in a situation like he was tonight, I was more nervous watching him pitch than I was pitching, because I can just feel everything he's going through," Wheeler said.
Lidge gave up singles to Albert Pujols and Walker to put runners at the corners with no outs. Lidge then worked Sanders into an infield chopper that third baseman Morgan Ensberg grabbed before making a perfect throw to the plate to beat Pujols. However, when the Astros didn't call timeout at the end of the play, Walker sneaked to third.
Next, after second baseman Eric Bruntlett went to his left to field John Mabry's bouncer, he and shortstop Adam Everett flashed precise teamwork to turn an unlikely double play. Lidge had induced just one double-play grounder since the beginning of the season.
"I don't normally get double plays, so that was awesome to end the game that way," Lidge said.
For three straight games, the impressiveness has started the moment Garner signaled the bullpen.
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.