For everyone, extra innings bring extraordinary pressure

World Series

October 26, 2005|By RICK MAESE

HOUSTON -- In the extra innings again, you find a rhythm. Each time the pitcher starts his windup, your breath stops at the bottom of your throat, waiting for the light to change colors.

On the mound, Bobby Jenks, the White Sox rookie reliever, rolled the ball around in his glove, summoning the world and putting every little bit of it into each pitch.

Batter at the plate. Pitcher on the mound. Runner on base. Nothing but pressure connecting them. Everyone in Houston standing - in the stadium, in their living rooms, in the neighborhood watering hole.

Before the game, everyone talked about a silly controversy - should the retractable roof be opened or closed? By the 10th inning, it seemed trite now, and we all knew the right decision had been made. If they would have dared closed the thing, we'd have all been in trouble.

Jenks started his windup. The flags stopped moving. For another brief moment, air only existed in throats. Jenks unleashed his world.

You could breathe again. A roller back to the mound. Another inning over. Onto the next. Memorable games work this way. The tension pains you, but you don't want them to end.

For much of the night it seemed as if Game 3 might never end. It started on a today and ended on a tomorrow, clocking in at 5 hours, 41 minutes, a World Series record.

On the line: the Astros' hopes for a World Series championship, a 43-year dream that's nearly been reduced to a far-fetched fantasy. And the White Sox's hopes for a sweep and an easy tapdance to their first championship in 88 years.

That's pressure.

In baseball, unlike any other sport, it's amazing how players perform with the game on the line. You've shot a three-pointer before in your driveway. You can attribute a Hail Mary pass to luck. But you cannot picture yourself coming anywhere near a situation like last night - staring at a 100-mph fastball in the extra innings of a World Series game.

In this postseason, we've seen some incredible performances when the pressure would have caused weaker men to crumble. Albert Pujols. Paul Konerko. Jenks. Scott Podsednik.

Last night, each pitch and each swing brought the immediate future into focus. The difference between a 3-0 series lead and a 2-1 advantage is huge.

Despite the White Sox's performance last weekend, jumping up to a 2-0 Series lead, the night somehow seemed scripted for the Astros. They had Roy Oswalt on the hill, the best pitcher on baseball's best pitching staff.

Roger Clemens brought the Astros attention. Andy Pettitte brought them hope. Oswalt is the one who brought them to the World Series.

He posted two victories over the Cardinals in the League Championship Series and was named NLCS MVP. But that was just an appetizer for last night's game.

At times, Oswalt stood on that mound last night showing the aloof spirit of a Little Leaguer who didn't seem to notice the pressures and hopes orbiting around his slim frame like racecars. He didn't appear to break a sweat and chewed his gum like a cartoon character.

You just knew after the White Sox jumped out in this Series that it would all come down to Oswalt and whatever he was able to do in last night's Game 3.

That's pressure.

The series came to Houston and the Astros knew exactly what this game meant: If you can't win with Oswalt on the hill, you won't be splashing champagne on a World Series trophy.

Just like during the National League Championship Series, Oswalt was the key. For all the love showered on Clemens and Pettitte, Oswalt is the best arm on the best pitching staff in baseball. Clemens won the Cy Young Award last year, but Oswalt was the one who led the National League in wins, with 20.

He won 20 more again this season, the only pitcher in the majors to win that many in each of the past two seasons.

Oswalt and the Astros were cruising early on. Oswalt was finding the plate and Houston hitters were finding it from the bases.

But then - the World Series has been full of but-thens for the Astros - came a disastrous fifth inning. When it was over, 10 men had come to the plate and five of them had crossed it.

Houston came back, tying it in the eighth, forcing fans to gnaw their fingernails to the cuticles in the extra innings.

This is the same team that took 18 innings to finish off the Braves in the NLDS.

With each passing inning, the Astros made sure of one thing: They weren't going quietly.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

World Series Game 4: White Sox (Garcia 14-8) @ Astros (Backe 10-8), 8:33 tonight, chs. 45, 5, 1090 AM

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