Cardinals 10, Astros 7

The good people of the midwest hope you have been enjoying following the Big Dance, that high-stakes, hotly anticipated tournament taking place back east. Here at the lowly NIT, which tipped off Wednesday night at Busch Stadium with Houston facing St. Louis -- the Cougars and the Billikens, anyone? -- there is less hype, fewer celebrity sightings and no questions over who is whose daddy. And if you can find this little tournament in some faraway corner of your television dial, more power to you.

Actually, the above is merely a version of a joke that has been making the rounds at the National League Championship Series, which, to all except the actual participants, has been made to feel like a decided undercard to the heavyweight duel taking place in the American League.

The bigger joke is that the eventual World Series champion might just come out of this side of the bracket, as the St. Louis Cardinals made a powerful statement in Game 1 of the NLCS, crushing the Houston Astros, 10-7, in front of 52,323 rabid, red-clad fans. Game 2 is here Thursday night.

"It was what I thought it would be -- a battle," said Cardinals starting pitcher Woody Williams. "We're two similar teams."

In was the kind of slugfest seemingly everyone expected, and in winning it, the Cardinals did what they were supposed to do, what they had done all season in racking up a major-league-leading 105 wins and an NL-leading 855 runs: They made quick work of an inferior opposing pitcher, Houston's Brandon Backe, who managed to blow a pair of two-run leads in a 42/3-inning stint in only his second career postseason start.

They maximized six decent innings from Williams, who allowed only a pair of two-run homers -- by Carlos Beltran (his fifth of the postseason) and Jeff Kent.

They crushed the soft middle of the Astros' bullpen, which had no answer during a pivotal six-run sixth inning. Five of the runs were charged to right-hander Chad Qualls, who retired only three of his nine batters.

And they piled on with their relentless offense. Albert Pujols hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the first to answer Beltran's. Scott Rolen broke an 0-for-14 postseason skid with an RBI single that tied the game in the fifth. And Larry Walker singled, doubled and tripled; needing a homer to become the first player to complete a postseason cycle, he struck out swinging in the eighth inning.

Asked if he was thinking about the cycle, Walker said, "Could you tell by how hard I swung?"

The only thing that failed to go according to script was the spotty work of the Cardinals' bullpen.

Following Williams's departure after the sixth, Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa needed five relievers to piece together the final nine outs, and it was a bit more of an adventure than he would have liked. A two-run homer by Lance Berkman off left-hander Ray King cut the Cardinals' lead to four, and right-hander Julian Tavarez allowed a solo homer to pinch hitter Mike Lamb with two outs in the ninth to cut the lead to three.

After Craig Biggio followed Lamb's homer with a ground-rule double, La Russa felt compelled to call upon his closer, Jason Isringhausen, who retired Beltran on a ground ball to end the game.

The Astros were done in as much by their shaky defense as by their bullpen. Outfielder Berkman misplayed Walker's one-out line drive in the first inning into a triple, claiming later that he never saw the ball. "I was just glad it didn't hit me in the temple," Berkman said, "because it might have killed me."

And on the pivotal play of the pivotal sixth inning -- with the score tied, one out and runners on second and third -- first baseman Jeff Bagwell fielded a slow roller down the line by pinch hitter Roger Cedeno, rather than letting the ball roll foul, as it appeared it would do. Bagwell had no play, and Edgar Renteria scored from third with the go-ahead run.

Besides that play, the Cardinals' six-run inning also included two infield hits, a sacrifice bunt and a throwing error on Astros shortstop Jose Vizcaino. However, it was capped by an authoritative three-run double by center fielder Jim Edmonds, which broke the game open.

"We don't just live with the long ball. We do the little things, too," Pujols said. "When you're in the playoffs you have to make sure you do the little things."

"They had some well-placed balls," said Astros Manager Phil Garner.

In a sense, the Astros were still paying for Garner's decision to start aces Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt against Atlanta in Games 4 and 5 of the Division Series, both of them on three days' rest. It left the Astros to rely on two, shall we say, unconventional starters -- Backe and right-hander Pete Munro -- in the first two games of this series.

Backe, who was also starting on three days' rest, is a converted outfielder from the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' farm system. Munro, who starts Thursday night, was released by the Minnesota Twins' Class AAA affiliate in June. They owned a total of nine big-league wins combined; both were in the minors when the season began.

Still, there was a feeling that if the Astros could scratch out even one win in the first two games, they would be in exceptional shape, with three games coming up at home -- where they closed out the regular season with 18 straight wins -- and with Clemens and Oswalt, fully rested following their Division Series efforts, ready to pitch Games 3 and 4.

"Our guys have not been overused," Garner said. "I don't think [this] did anything to our confidence."

Scott Rolen, left, Larry Walker and Albert Pujols celebrate after scoring on a double by Jim Edmonds for St. Louis. The Cardinals defeated Houston, 10-7.St. Louis led the NL with 105 wins and 855 runs because of players like Albert Pujols, who homered in Game 1.