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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."

So, the Astros will head to the Series with Clemens mourning his mother, who died during the season, and Oswalt praising his father and all the rest of the Astros toasting those who went before them, from Ryan, the Express who was denied in the postseason of '80 and '86, to veteran team president Tal Smith, who established the team's tradition of solid winning, though, until this night, never quite winning enough to win a prize of consequence.

"We had a bunch of veteran leaders who wouldn't quit and a bunch of kids who didn't know how to quit," said Garner, who got a solo homer from Jason Lane, but also a suicide squeeze bunt from No. 8 hitter Adam Everett.

While the Astros got the glory in this rematch of last year's NLCS, the Cards were left with altogether too much irony. For two days, La Russa has not been able to contain his joy and hasn't even wanted to try. Normally intense or analytical in October, he was still telling Pujols homer stories an hour before this game. Why not? His phone's been ringing for two days.

"I was so happy I had to call myself," said La Russa.

Did he reach himself? "I left a message," he quipped.

Within a few hours, another message had been delivered. Famous moments in October do not always turn the tide for keeps. When Kirk Gibson hit his home run in Game 1 of the '88 World Series, La Russa's Oakland A's crumbled. When Henderson hit his homer, the Angels fell apart. When Mariano Rivera had back-to-back blown saves last October, New York came home to Yankee Stadium and lost twice, dispiritedly.

But such momentum-shifting events haven't always been determinative. Carlton Fisk's famous foul pole home run in the '75 Series was merely a prelude to Red Sox defeat. In '01, the Yanks had back-to-back, game-saving, ninth-inning homers by Scott Brosius and Tino Martinez. The Bombers even led the Series. Yet they lost the last two games.

Momentum is an elusive concept in baseball. Earl Weaver said it first and probably said it best, too. "Momentum?" he'd snort after a tough loss. "Momentum is the next day's starting pitcher." Then Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar or Dave McNally would pitch a five-hitter the next game and nobody'd mention "momentum" to Earl anymore.

La Russa told that old Weaver story here this week, trying to temper his own post-Pujols glee while underscoring that nothing would suffice if his Mark Mulder couldn't outpitch Roy Oswalt.

And he couldn't.

After a strong first inning, Mulder lasted only 4 2/3 lame frames, allowing three runs, six hits and several ringing outs. Just as telling, he looked nervous all night and uncorked two wild pitches, one entirely behind Biggio that bounced to the screen to bring home a Houston run.

"When I pitched Game 5 in Yankee Stadium [in '01], I felt like I was sitting in the clubhouse for 10 hours. The game just never seemed to start. You just get anxious," said Mulder this week, tipping his state of mind.

What was wrong with Mulder, La Russa was asked.

"That's a good question," he said icily.

Now, baseball's season will end as appropriately as many have hoped. Clemens and Pettitte, Bagwell and Biggio, all get their showcase. Sluggers Lance Berkman and Morgan Ensberg, as well as the still relatively little-known Lidge, will get to show that they are genuine stars. And an Astros team with no pennants to show for 44 years will face a White Sox franchise that hasn't won a world title for 88 years.

In a week or so, one team will be ridiculously happy. Perhaps it will even be the unlikely Astros, who just 32 days ago were only 2 1/2 games ahead of the humble Nationals for the wild-card spot. But whatever happens from here on, both Houston and Chicago will spend the rest of October making up for lost time. There'll be decades worth of dancin' in the streets.

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