Last week, the FOX Sports Twitter account specifically dedicated to baseball posted a moment in time that Astros fans would rather blissfully ignore. I would be perfectly fine never watching that clip again, but, alas, I know that is not possible in today’s media age.
Defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory that day. The chance of clinching the NL pennant in Houston disappeared with the loud crack of a bat, courtesy of Brad Lidge’s hanging slider. It was a swing that stunned an entire ballpark full of raging fans who were eagerly anticipating a World Series berth. For many years leading up to that moment, the Astros felt like a snakebit franchise. Game 5 of that year’s NLCS only reinforced the notion when Lidge instantly dropped to a crouch on the mound.
A favorite quote of mine that is often attributed to Mark Twain, “History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes,” is even relevant when you compare the two National League Championship Series from 2004 and 2005. While the finer details were obviously different, the sequencing and overall results still led the Astros to the exact same spot: A 3-2 series lead heading back to Missouri. But Game 6 is where the two series truly diverged and the legacy of a certain Astro was further cemented.
By the conclusion of the 2005 season, Roy Oswalt had already solidified himself as one of the game’s best starters. Only four starters from 2001-05 posted a higher fWAR than the past ace: Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, and Roger Clemens. Across the same number of seasons, Oswalt finished in the top-five of the NL Cy Young voting four times. The only season in which he didn’t during that time period (2003), the right-hander still posted a 2.97 ERA across 127 1⁄3 injury-shortened innings. Incidentally, in the season (2001) when Oswalt finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, Pujols came in first.
Following that crushing defeat in Game 5 at Minute Maid Park, the Astros were staring down history actually repeating itself: Another 3-2 series lead that craters into another Championship Series collapse. In hindsight, Oswalt had a tremendous task in front of him for his Game 6 start. One, I might add, that probably isn’t appreciated as much today as it should be. For that particular era of Astros baseball, I can’t think of a more important game than Game 6.
Thankfully for the Astros, Oswalt delivered in a championship way with seven innings of one-run ball with six strikeouts. Statistically speaking, it wasn’t Oswalt’s best start. But I contend it was just based on what I saw on television and the moment at hand. When he struck out Pujols swinging with Jim Edmonds on base following a first inning walk (Oswalt’s only one of the game), it felt as if the tide changed in the series for the final time. Oswalt neutralized, at least for that one moment, the foe that consistently foiled the Astros again and again. It was a small victory that set the stage for a much larger one.
Oswalt would ultimately pitch in just one more postseason game for the Astros in the subsequent World Series against the White Sox. We all know the conclusion to that story, unfortunately. The right-hander would then put together largely quality seasons with Houston until his trade to the Phillies in 2010. His legacy in baseball will always be centered on the culmination of his work, and rightly so. At the same time, one can’t think of Oswalt’s career without Game 6 at the forefront of the conversation. And that bulldozer.