Braves go down 2-1 in NLDS
Sosa solid, but bullpen struggles again in tough Game 3 loss
HOUSTON -- Given the opportunity, the Braves would have gladly entered Game 3 of their National League Division Series with the guarantee that Jorge Sosa would provide this kind of performance.
Of course, they would have also liked the provision of a stronger bullpen and the opportunity to face Roy Oswalt on a night when he wasn't proving why he's the only Major League hurler to produce 20-win campaigns both of the past two seasons.
Instead, they were left with the reality that their 7-3 loss to the Astros on Saturday night at Minute Maid Park once again puts them on the unenviable brink of postseason elimination.
"Once again we find ourselves on the road again needing to win Game 4 in order to force a Game 5 and go home," Chipper Jones said. "We did it last year with [Roger] Clemens on the mound here in this ballpark. Maybe we can do it again tomorrow, we'll see."
Unless the Braves are able to claim victory in the final two games of this best-of-five series, they'll be bounced from the postseason in the Division Series for the fourth consecutive year. This will be the third straight year they've entered Game 4 in this situation. Each previous time, they've managed to extend the series to a decisive fifth game at Turner Field.
Last year, they did so by defeating the Astros with a short-rested Clemens lasting just five innings in Game 4. In this year's fourth game, they'll be looking for a short-rested Tim Hudson to outduel Houston's Brandon Backe.
"This is a big game, obviously the biggest game of the year," said Hudson, who suffered the loss in Game 1. "I'm glad they have the confidence in me to get it back to Atlanta."
Not given the choice, the Braves must at least display confidence in a bullpen that has faltered in Games 1 and 3. Their latest meltdown came after Sosa tossed six solid innings and exited with a 3-2 deficit.
"As a whole, we [the bullpen] should take responsibility for tonight," said Chris Reitsma, who began Houston's four-run seventh inning by allowing Craig Biggio to drill his third double of the evening.
Reitsma, who allowed four earned runs to extend a 5-3 deficit in Game 1, exited after allowing Willy Taveras to reach on an infield single that bounced off the plate and high over the mound. John Foster entered and his one-pitch outing consisted of a misplaced fastball that Lance Berkman drilled into left field for an RBI single.
The next victim summoned out of the bullpen was rookie Joey Devine, who didn't retire any of the three batters he faced. He issued an intentional walk between a Morgan Ensberg double and Jason Lane RBI single. Before Jim Brower induced an Adam Everett sacrifice fly, the Astros had seen each of their first six batters of the seventh inning reach safely.
"You know, the bullpen is what it is," said Braves manager Bobby Cox, whose relief corps was weakened when Blaine Boyer experienced inflammation in his shoulder late in the regular season. "It's been fine for most of the year. We still have confidence in it, that it will get the job done."
Unfortunately for Sosa, he did exactly what he was supposed to do and still was dealt the loss in his postseason debut. The right-hander, who was 7-0 with a 1.71 ERA in 12 road starts during the regular season, allowed three earned runs and seven hits in six innings.
"I thought he pitched an incredible ballgame tonight, he really did," Cox said. "He left [down], 3-2, against a great pitcher in Oswalt. I thought he pitched fine. We just couldn't hold them in the seventh inning."
Oswalt, who was 12-2 with a 2.52 ERA in 17 home starts this year, limited the Braves to three earned runs and six hits in 7 1/3 innings. Most of the damage he incurred came in the second inning, when he issued his only two walks and surrendered consecutive two-out soft singles to Brian McCann and Sosa.
Mixing his high-powered fastball with his maddening slow curveball, Oswalt was a major reason why the Braves didn't get any production out of the top of their lineup. Combined, Rafael Furcal, Marcus Giles and Chipper Jones went 1-for-14.
"It's not fair to throw 97 [mph] and be able to locate like that," McCann said in reference to Oswalt. "It makes it real tough on hitters. That's why he's a 20-game winner."
With his second-inning single, Sosa recorded his first RBI as a Major Leaguer and at the same time erased the two-run deficit he encountered after the first inning. Biggio, who is hitting .500 during the Division Series, began the bottom of the first with a double. An Ensberg single and Lane sacrifice fly accounted for Houston's two runs.
After the first inning, the only damage Sosa incurred came courtesy of Mike Lamb's two-out, third-inning solo homer. He allowed at least one runner to reach base in each of his six innings. But as he's done all year, escaped most of his jams.
"Anytime in the playoffs you can keep us close through the sixth inning, you take it any time," McCann said. "He threw the ball really well tonight. I'd take that outing every day of the week."
Andruw Jones' second double and third hit of the evening gave the Braves another run in the eighth inning. But with the bullpen already having done its damage a half-inning earlier and Brad Lidge waiting in the wings to throw a perfect ninth, it was too little, too late.
"I thought if we could keep it 3-2, we had a pretty good shot," Chipper said. "We just couldn't keep it 3-2."
Now for the second year in a row, the Braves find themselves having to do anything possible to win this five-game series in a decisive final game at home on Monday night.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.