Astros Land On Solid Ground

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, October 20, 2005

ST. LOUIS Now, for the rest of his life, Brad Lidge can sleep with an easy mind. That home run by Albert Pujols, the titanic one that, the Astros teased him, had almost hit their airplane as it left Houston the next day, will recede until it is just a punch line to all the gags that punctuate their joy.

Now, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte, those native sons who returned home with one purpose, to bring the first pennant in Astros history back to Houston, have their fondest wish. When the World Series begins this weekend against the White Sox in Chicago, the Rocket and Pettitte will probably start the first two games. It's their turn and, to be sure, it's their due.

Now, Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, with 33 Astros seasons between them, but so many ugly October slumps during the primes of their careers, will get to play for all the platinum marbles. The scrappy Biggio had two more hits Wednesday night in Game 6 of the NLCS to raise his playoff batting average to .333. Bagwell, out almost all season after shoulder surgery, will be a designated hitter in the games in Chicago.

"I was hoping to break their hearts again. Reluctantly, I'm really pleased for both those guys. They're top shelf," Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa graciously said after an efficient, drama-free 5-1 Houston win ended this series in the last game played at Busch Stadium.

Of course, it is really La Russa whose heart has been cracked one more time. His teams have finished first 11 times, averaging 98 wins in those years. His last two Cardinals teams had 105 and 100 wins. Yet he still has just one earthquake-marred Series win in an otherwise fabulous career.

And now, finally, after dominating the Cards for the second time in this playoff, Roy Oswalt may finally begin to get the credit that his career demands. Most fans know Oswalt has had back-to-back 20-win seasons. Perhaps they don't realize that Oswalt has a better career winning percentage (83-39) and ERA (3.07) than either of his vastly more celebrated teammates, Pettitte or Clemens. Oswalt also has a better ERA and winning percentage as an Astro than Nolan Ryan did in Houston from '80 to '88.

"In Game 2, he just worked us over to get them even [at one game apiece]. Now, when we wanted to get to Game 7, he just worked us over again. Your team is going to look flat when three men go up to the plate every inning and three men come back," said La Russa after Oswalt, who is 5-0 in his postseason career, including three wins this October, had allowed three hits in seven innings while fanning six and yielding one run.

"Roy went right after 'em. He challenges 'em," said laidback Astros Manager Phil Garner, whose "What, Me Worry?" style of managing may have been perfect for a team trying to survive the 500-foot, three-run punch in the gut delivered by Pujols on Monday when Houston was one out from a pennant.

In 1986, after Dave Henderson's two-out-in-the-ninth-inning home run in Game 5 of the ALCS had robbed the Angels of a pennant, Anaheim Manager Gene Mauch called a team meeting. Why? Just so his team, still leading three games to two, could know how worried he was?

Garner, as usual, played it loosy-goosy. "We're still ahead, right?" said Garner, leaning on the batting cage before this game. "We'll see what Roy has to say about how things go."

What the slender, 6-foot, 185-pound Oswalt did was silence the Busch Stadium crowd almost as much as Pujols quieted Houston. Hammering the strike zone with 94 to 97 mph fastballs, then mixing in hard sliders, Oswalt fanned Pujols in the first inning, then got him on infield grounders his next two at-bats, setting up an 0-for-4 night.

After the game, Oswalt gave his NLCS MVP award to his father, who raised him in tiny Weir, Miss., and "never missed a game, always believed in me. He didn't want to take it. But I made him."

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