Cardinals 6, Astros 4

As Game 2 of the National League Championship Series entered the seventh-inning stretch Thursday night -- with 52,347 fans on their feet, "God Bless America" being sung and an incongruous fireworks show wrapping up beyond the left field facade of Busch Stadium -- the Houston Astros and St. Louis Cardinals were all tied on the scoreboard, four runs apiece. But everyone knew the sides were anything but even.

By that point, the Astros seemed to have used up all their magic, having coaxed 42/3 innings out of an unlikely starting pitcher, then, just moments earlier, cobbling together the tying run off St. Louis's formidable bullpen.

With the Cardinals, then as always, anything seemed possible -- whether a lock-down bullpen performance, a sudden burst of offensive might or some sort of thrilling, cinematic ending. Or, as it happened, all of the above.

With two mighty swings of their bats in the bottom of the eighth -- one each by Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen -- the Cardinals surged to a 6-4 victory that reinforced their standing as the best team in their league and sent them to Houston with a two-games-to-none lead in the best-of-seven series.

The Cardinals, winners of 105 games in the regular season, now find themselves two wins away from their first World Series appearance in 17 years. Following an off-day Friday, the series resumes Saturday with Game 3 at Houston's Minute Maid Park, where the Astros won 18 straight games to close the regular season.

"It came at the right time tonight," Pujols said. "Going into Houston, we needed this one."

Pujols and Rolen greeted right-hander Dan Micelli with back-to-back homers to open the bottom of the eighth, both earning curtain calls from an appreciative crowd. Rolen's homer was his second of the game; his first, a two-run blast off right-hander Chad Harville in the fifth, completed the Cardinals' comeback from a 3-0 deficit, giving them their first lead.

"I don't know what my postseason numbers are," said Rolen, who went hitless in the division series, "but tonight I know I contributed to us winning a ballgame."

Although the Astros tied the game in the seventh -- when Lance Berkman doubled off Kiko Calero, stole third and scored on Morgan Ensberg's single through a drawn-in infield -- here was where the Cardinals, with a superior bullpen, a superior bench, a superior defense and a superior offense, could simply outlast the Astros.

And in fact, it did not take long.

Although closer Brad Lidge -- the only truly trustworthy member of the Astros' bullpen -- was warmed up and ready, Astros Manager Phil Garner went to Micelli instead, and within two pitches the Cardinals had the lead on Pujols's line-drive homer.

Garner said later he was prepared to bring in Lidge had the Astros taken the lead in the top of the eighth, and that he retains trust in the rest of his bullpen.

"We'll get it worked out," he said. "We're not where we want to be, certainly, but we'll get it worked out and they'll come through for us."

Somehow, the fate of the Astros' season came to rest Thursday night in the right hand of Pete Munro, a 29-year-old journeyman whom the Astros picked up off the Minnesota Twins' scrap heap in June. He had been such a vital part of Houston's rotation of late, in the past two weeks he had made exactly zero appearances on a mound against live hitters.

That Munro was able to keep the Cardinals -- who have merely the best and most fearsome offense in the NL, if not the entire majors -- off the scoreboard for nearly half the game must be counted as some sort of minor miracle.

Still, there was a palpable sense it could not last forever, and of course it did not. Munro carried a four-hit shutout and a 3-0 lead into the fifth, but by the end of the inning he no longer had a lead, and he was no longer in the game. Two-run homers by Larry Walker and Rolen took care of that.

All four Cardinals runs in the inning came with two outs, which makes it 26 two-out runs (out of 38 total) in the postseason.

One suspects Munro had done just about all he was capable of doing in this game, but given the awful state of the Astros' bullpen -- which had compiled a 7.40 postseason ERA entering Thursday night -- it might not have been a bad decision for Garner to have stuck with him a little longer.

On Wednesday night, the Astros' bullpen allowed six earned runs. On Thursday night, Harville and Micelli combined to give up three homers. All of them came with two outs.

If there is one dazzling subplot to take from the first two games of this series, it is that of Houston's Carlos Beltran and St. Louis's Pujols, two of the most talented young players in the game, putting those talents on display in a thrilling game of one-upsmanship.

In Game 1, they traded two-run homers in the first inning.

On Thursday night, Beltran hit another homer in the top of the first -- his sixth in six games this postseason -- to give the Astros a 1-0 lead against Cardinals starter Matt Morris. Pujols had to wait eight innings this time for his answer, but by then he had already smacked two singles, scored a run and added a fine, barehanded grab-and-throw to third base to foil an Astros sacrifice bunt attempt in the top of the sixth.

"You don't have to be a hero on this team," Pujols said. "You just want to start something."

A steady rain fell on St. Louis all day and well into the evening, raising questions about whether the game would be played, and ultimately delaying the start by about half an hour. The entire game was played under a light but steady rain, which made the 48-degree air feel even colder.

The Astros would not have minded one bit had the game been postponed until Friday, since it would have allowed them to bypass Munro and start ace Roger Clemens in Game 2, while ensuring that Clemens and 20-game winner Roy Oswalt could start twice each in the series on full rest. As things stand, the Astros' major decision will be whether to bring back Clemens and Oswalt on short rest in Games 6 and 7.

Asked if he is confident given the upcoming pitching matchups, Garner said, "Yes, we are. Those guys have been our horses all year. We'll turn to them now and ask them to do what they've been doing all year for us."

Scott Rolen, who was hitless in the NL Division Series, is congratulated after hitting a solo homer in the eighth to make it 6-4. Rolen also smacked a two-run homer in the fifth.Albert Pujols leads off the 8th with a solo homer. The Cards hit four home runs in the game.Right fielder Larry Walker is congratulated after hitting a two-out, two-run homer in the fifth to cut the Cardinals' deficit to 3-2.