ATLANTA (AP)—More than anyone, Rafael Furcal wants the season to last as long as possible.
He made sure the Atlanta Braves play at least two more games.
Set to report to jail once the postseason ends, Furcal hit a two-out, two-run homer in the 11th inning that sent the Braves over the Houston Astros 4-2 Thursday and tied their NL playoff series at one game each.
“It was awesome,” teammate Adam LaRoche said. “For as much pressure as has been put on him, knowing what’s going to happen to him after we’re done. I don’t know how he’s able to do it.”
Furcal was in court just hours before Game 1, where he was sentenced to 21 days in jail and 28 days in a treatment center for violating probation with his second drunken-driving arrest in four years.
His sentence was put off until the day after the season ends. Furcal ensured that it won’t be ending with Saturday’s Game 3.
“For me, when I’m coming to the ballpark … I forget everything except the field, put a lot of concentration on the game,” said Furcal, who had three hits and drove in three runs. “Then, after the game, when I go to my house, I think of all my problems.”
With Houston on the verge of a commanding lead, manager Phil Garner brought closer Brad Lidge into the game in the seventh inning, but Atlanta rallied from a late two-run deficit to force extra innings.
“I’m just upset at myself for not getting the job done,” Lidge said. “You can’t think about how long you’re going to be out there. For me, it doesn’t matter what inning I come in.”
Both teams went to extraordinary means—the Astros looking to go two-up in the best-of-five series, the Braves realizing they needed a split before playing twice at Minute Maid Park, where Houston has won 18 straight games.
Braves rookie Charles Thomas singled with one out in the 11th off Dan Miceli and stole second. Eli Marrero popped out to the catcher, but Furcal golfed a 1-2 pitch deep into the right-field seats, flipping his bat in the air about halfway down to celebrate his first postseason homer.
“I think he feels just terrible” about his legal problems, Braves manager Bobby Cox said. “Nobody likes to have their name in the paper like that, that’s for sure. As much as we can, we want him to forget about it, concentrate on baseball, and things will work out good for him in the future.”
The Astros routed the Braves 9-3 in Game 1 and were ahead 2-0 going to the seventh with 20-game winner Roy Oswalt on the mound.
But NL East champion Atlanta fought back, managing to overcome some shaky baserunning—two were thrown out at the plate—and plenty of other wasted chances before Furcal came through.
The Braves outhit the Astros 14-4, holding Houston without a hit for the final 5 1-3 innings.
Realizing the importance of the game, Atlanta kept closer John Smoltz on the mound for three innings, his longest stint since September 2001. The Braves also let Smoltz bat in the bottom of the ninth, and he responded with his first hit since 1999.
Smoltz was already in the clubhouse when Furcal ended it with only the second walk-off homer in Braves’ postseason history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
“This is huge. It changes everyone’s mindset,” Smoltz said. “I was screaming as much as I’ve ever screamed.”
Lidge went 2 2-3 innings—his longest outing of the season—but couldn’t hold a 2-1 lead, giving up LaRoche’s RBI double in the eighth.
The Astros claimed the wild card by winning 36 of their last 46 games. Garner, who took over at the All-Star break when Jimy Williams was fired, stuck with the win-at-all-costs philosophy.
“We’ve been doing that for two months,” he said. “Every game has been just as important as this game.”
Antonio Alfonseca, the last of four Atlanta pitchers, got the win with a perfect 11th.
The Braves played the game under protest, contending that Garner feigned a problem with the phone line to the Astros bullpen to give Lidge more time to warm up in the seventh.
No need for a ruling now.
Houston’s Jeff Bagwell homered in the first, his second extra-base hit in as many days. Before this year, he had gone 46 at-bats in the postseason without anything better than a single.
If Bagwell’s first postseason homer was surprising, Raul Chavez’s was downright shocking. Normally the Astros’ backup catcher, he started this one and led off the third with a drive into the left-field seats off Mike Hampton to make it 2-0.
Chavez had only two career homers, the last coming on April 15, 2003.
The Astros’ offense disappeared after that. Trying to hang on, Garner summoned Lidge in the seventh after Furcal’s run-scoring single.
Furcal got around to third but hesitated when Lidge skipped a pitch in the dirt to J.D. Drew. Chavez retrieved the ball about 15 feet away and from his knees made a perfect throw to Lidge, who tagged out Furcal.
The Braves tied it up in the eighth with three hits off Lidge, who was fortunate to escape with only one run scoring on LaRoche’s double. Pinch-runner Wilson Betemit was easily thrown out at home when he broke on a one-hopper to third baseman Morgan Ensberg.
Oswalt, who led the NL in wins, gave up eight hits and a run in 6 2-3 innings.
Hampton pitched well against his former team, giving up just four hits in 6 1-3 innings. But he left in the seventh because of tightness in his left forearm.
The injury wasn’t serious, but he’s not expected to pitch again in the series.
Smoltz struck out in his only two at-bats of the regular season. … Houston OF Carlos Beltran went 0-for-5 with three strikeouts after being plunked in the ribs with a pitch in Game 1. … Braves 3B Chipper Jones, bothered by a sore right hand, is 0-for-8 in the series. … Eddie Mathews hit the only other walk-off homer in Braves’ history: Game 4 of the 1957 World Series when the team was in Milwaukee.