ST. LOUIS, Oct. 21 -- Roger Clemens was bigger than anyone on the field Thursday night in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series, literally and figuratively. From the mound at Busch Stadium, where he stood with a trip to the World Series on the line, the Houston Astros pitcher, massive of body and legend, looked like he could whup anyone in the St. Louis Cardinals' house in a wrestling match, a beanball war, a show of baseball hardware or a comparison of financial portfolios.
But there was one thing Thursday night for which Clemens was no match. When the Cardinals gathered up 52,140 rabid fans, the most dangerous lineup in the league and a wealth of honor and history into one giant ball and sent it screaming toward Clemens, the big man crumbled.
St. Louis third baseman Scott Rolen rocks Roger Clemens for a two-run home run and the Cardinals defeat the Astros, 5-2, to advance to the World Series.
(Charles Rex Arbogast - AP)
"You grind and you hope it's good enough," Clemens said. "I felt good about our chances tonight. It just didn't work out. They hit good pitches."
A three-run sixth inning, constructed around the core of the Cardinals' formidable lineup, toppled Clemens, giving the Cardinals a 5-2 victory and their 16th National League pennant. They will face the Boston Red Sox in the World Series, beginning Saturday night.
As the final outs counted down, the crowd punctuated every strike with high-pitched roars. And when Houston's Jose Vizcaino grounded out against closer Jason Isringhausen to end the game, the roar was deafening. The Cardinals streamed out of their dugout and bullpen, gathering near shortstop in a raucous scrum.
"This is what you dream about all your life," said Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols, voted MVP of this NLCS. "Getting the chance to do it against the best pitcher in the league the last 20 years . . . and this is not over."
About a half-hour after the end of the game, Cardinals players suddenly appeared on the home dugout, showering late-staying fans with champagne.
The home team won every game in the series, and the Cardinals, by virtue of a magnificent 105-win season, had the final game at home.
A generation of baseball fans had grown up in St. Louis not remembering what it was like for the Cardinals, one of the game's most storied franchises, to play in a World Series. Their last trip was 1987, and their ninth and last championship was 1982.
The Astros, meantime, will forever be left to wonder if they would have been better off starting Clemens in Game 6 on short rest, and coming back with Roy Oswalt on Thursday night.
Nobody was warming up in the Astros' bullpen as the heart of the Cardinals' order came to the plate in the bottom of the sixth, trailing 2-1, but with the tying run in scoring position and the crowd starting to buzz and crackle with anticipation. The inning, clearly, would belong to Clemens.
Astros Manager Phil Garner went to the mound to talk to Clemens before he faced the slugger Pujols, with the runner now on third and two outs. The discussion centered on whether to walk Pujols -- and take their chances with Scott Rolen -- or pitch to him. They pitched to him.
"We felt like we could make some good pitches on Pujols," Garner said. "We wanted to be very cautious to both guys."
When Pujols turned on an inside fastball, and roped it to left for a double, the game was tied.