Oswalt unable to dig Astros out of big hole in Game 3

October 26, 2005|By RICK MAESE

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

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 to a 2-0 lead in this series that it would all come down to Oswalt and whatever he was able to do in last night's Game 3.

The Series came to Houston and the Astros knew exactly what nine innings of baseball meant: If you can't win with Oswalt on the hill, you probably 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.

You could have had no vested interest in last night's game, but Oswalt is the kind of player who's easy to root for. He represents everything you used to love about the game.

They love talking about roots around Houston. Clemens, Pettitte and tonight's starter, Brandon Backe, are from the Houston area. Astros manager Phil Garner called Houston his home even before the Astros offered him the managerial post.

But no one honors his roots like Oswalt. The unassuming right-hander only works in Houston. His home is Weir, Miss., a community of 550, just a bit north of Jackson. It's the kind of place you wouldn't find unless you wanted to, and even then you'd probably get lost on the way.

"It's a place where no one really cares what you do," Oswalt says. "You could be a ballplayer, we have a lot of guys who just have regular jobs and everyone is treated the same.

"I can go to a Weir football game and everybody comes up and speaks because they haven't seen me in a while. They don't come up and speak to me because I was on TV the night before. That's why I like going home."

He and his wife, Nicole, high school sweethearts who have a 1-year-old daughter, live in Weir every offseason.

Oswalt's mother is a bus driver, and his father is a logger. His high school didn't even have a baseball program until Oswalt's sophomore year.

When he graduated, college coaches wouldn't touch him and Oswalt had to enroll in Holmes Community College just to keep playing baseball. He was coached there by Kenny Dupont, a former Orioles scout.

The Astros drafted Oswalt in the 23rd round in 1996 - the 684th overall pick - and four years later he helped the U.S. Olympic team win gold in Sydney.

Within a relatively short period of time, he became one of the game's top pitchers with virtually no fanfare. For him, it all culminated with this year's playoffs.

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.

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. It opened with a 4-0 Astros lead and unraveled quickly - Oswalt's pinpoint control, that comfy lead and the excitement that wrapped itself around ballpark.

Chicago third baseman Joe Crede led off with a homer. A few batters later, Jermaine Dye knocked in one with his single to center. A.J. Pierzynski would knock in two more with his double to center. Before it was over, 10 men had come to the plate and five of them had crossed it.

Oswalt left the game in the top of the seventh with uncharacteristic numbers: five runs on eight hits, five walks and only three strikeouts.

History says teams can't dig themselves into a World Series hole and find their way out. For the Astros, Oswalt was supposed to be the one with the shovel.

It would have been a great chapter to a small-town story if Oswalt was the one who made the state of Texas cheer last night. But Houston's hopes are no longer on Oswalt's shoulders. Tonight in Game 4, it's all on Backe.

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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