Matters became worse before they became better Sunday night. The Astros had a 9-2 lead after seven innings, courtesy of some timely hitting and the typically terrific work of starter Roy Oswalt.
The White Sox came in leading the Major Leagues in scoring with 5.8 runs per game this season. And maybe more to the point, they had scored 9.2 runs per game during the nine-game winning streak they carried into this contest.
Clearly, it would take much more than an average pitching performance to stop the Sox, or even slow them down much. Fortunately for the Astros, they had Oswalt, the only pitcher in baseball to win 20 games in each of the last two seasons, available for this task. Against a white-hot team, Oswalt produced what is a fairly typical line for him -- seven innings, two runs, five hits, one walk, seven strikeouts.
That should have been the story and that should have been enough. But in the last two innings, Russ Springer and Brad Lidge surrendered a three-run homer and a grand slam to Chicago second baseman Tadahito Iguchi.
A 9-2 game became a 9-9 game, and the White Sox had roughly two seasons worth of momentum behind them. They were the defending World Series champions, they had won their last nine games, and they had just erased a seven-run lead in two blinks of an eye. They were 29-10 at home this season, and 10-1 in Interleague Play. They were a freight train and the Astros were standing on the railroad tracks of history.
But the thing about the recent Astros is that they have done their best work when the rest of the world has consigned them to oblivion.
Coughing up a seven-run lead in two innings is relief pitching somewhere between inadequate and appalling. But after that, the Astros managed to find four innings of shutout relief from Chad Qualls, Trevor Miller and Fernando Nieve. And then they pieced together the winning 10th run in the 13th from a rare, but correctly called fan-interference triple by Adam Everett and a single by Willy Taveras.
"We battled back and it was a tribute to a good, gutty effort by all our players," manager Phil Garner said. "Our guys held on."
Basically, the last three relievers did the essential hanging on. "We got 'em out and that's the way we persevered last year," Garner said. "We got the lead or we were tied and we didn't give up a run. And that's what we're not doing this year."
Stopping the White Sox at any point is no easy task, as the Astros know all too well by now. This is no less an imposing White Sox team than the one that swept the Astros in the Series.
"This is as good a team as we've seen this season," Garner said. "They have solid pitching. Their rotation is as good as they come. Their No. 4 and 5 pitchers are able to match up against somebody else's No. 2 and 3 pitchers. If you can do that and then you throw in a good offensive team, that's pretty good.
"In the first two games here, they did what they did against us in the World Series, with different guys in the lineup tormenting us. Top to bottom, somebody hurt us."
Iguchi took his turn at hurting the Astros on Sunday night, but this time at least, the pain was not permanent. Maybe the triple by Everett, picked up by a fan down the right-field line while the ball was still in play, constituted a good break, but all four umpires were in agreement that Everett should be awarded third on the play. The Astros might have been due for at least one outbreak of good news in this series.
"This has been a strange and crazy series," Garner said. "Thank goodness something good went our way."
So the Astros salvaged a victory in this series, and became the first NL team in the last nine tries to beat the White Sox. The Sox had won eight games in their nine-game streak against NL teams. The American League is 103-64 in Interleague Play this season.
"I'm not going to say it's a better league," White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said of the AL. "I think it's stronger."
The difference in connotation between "better" and "stronger" could be discussed endlessly. Maybe Ozzie, who has talked his way into significant trouble in the last week, was trying to be diplomatic. Maybe not.
But this one ended up in the National League column. On this one long Sunday night, the Astros found a way to win one against the White Sox on their seventh try since last October. They could have won more easily. They should have won more easily. But at the most demoralizing moment, they found a way to persevere and win. The record says that they're pretty accomplished at this sort of thing.