Astros 5, Cardinals 2

It must have happened between innings, when Roger Clemens huddled with his pitching coach and his best friend in the tunnel behind the Houston Astros' dugout. One of them must have seen that Clemens was without it -- his bread-and-butter for two decades, his "out" pitch -- and that the results were threatening to become disastrous, with the Astros barely holding onto a one-run lead and their postseason lives against the monstrous St. Louis Cardinals.

It must have been there, away from the cameras and the crowd, that someone slipped it to him. Stuffed it into his back pocket. Slid it into the webbing of his glove. Because all of a sudden, back out on the mound, there it was: Mr. Splitty, aka the splitter, aka the split-finger fastball.

And once Mr. Splitty appeared, everything changed. The Cardinals could not touch Clemens. The lead was locked down. And at the end of the Astros' 5-2 victory in front of 42,896 at Minute Maid Park, the entire National League Championship Series was changed, as well.

The Astros' Game 3 victory -- which was built upon seven strong innings from Clemens, six outs from closer Brad Lidge, and three homers by the heart of their lineup -- pulled them out of a 2-0 hole in the best-of-seven series. Suddenly, the Astros can tie the series on Sunday, when they send 20-game winner Roy Oswalt to the mound to face St. Louis's Jason Marquis in a stadium where they have won 20 of their last 21 games.

"It was a must-win for us," Clemens said. "Now, we're back in it a little bit."

Clemens -- 42 years old, in the winter of a Hall of Fame career, pitching in his hometown for the team he came out of retirement to join 10 months ago -- was laboring noticeably in the early going. His pitches were flat, and a couple of them ended up over the outfield wall, courtesy of Cardinals bashers Larry Walker and Jim Edmonds. Mr. Splitty, Clemens's nickname for his trademark pitch, had deserted him.

"He didn't have [the splitter] in the beginning," said Cardinals left fielder Reggie Sanders. "But he's a horse. He's 42 years old, but you wouldn't know it. He still battled."

In the top of the fourth inning, nursing a 3-2 lead, with a runner on base, Clemens was dueling Edgar Renteria, the talented Cardinals' shortstop. To that point, the Cardinals had swung and missed at Clemens's pitches only twice the entire game -- an unheard of figure for the pitcher with the second-most strikeouts in baseball history.

And then there it was. Clemens fanned Renteria on a 3-2 splitter, and he would never be threatened again. The strikeout was the first of seven Clemens would rack up over a span of 13 batters, carrying him all the way through the seventh inning.

"He found a way to get stronger as the game went on," Astros Manager Phil Garner said.

Between innings, Clemens spends most of his time in the tunnel, often conferring with catcher Brad Ausmus. At one point Saturday, Clemens was joined by pitching coach Jim Hickey and injured left-hander Andy Pettitte, Clemens's friend and confidante. The conversation centered on mechanics, but there was plenty of time for someone to slip Clemens the answer to his problems.

"Through four or five innings, I didn't think he had his best stuff," said Walker, who crushed one of Clemens's flat splitters for a homer in the first inning. "But all of a sudden, in [the sixth and seventh], something happened. . . . That's why he's Roger Clemens."

Leading by just a run as the game entered the bottom of the eighth, and facing a bullpen that had allowed only one meaningful (i.e., non-blowout) run in the entire postseason, the Astros nonetheless struck twice when Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa pushed a couple of wrong buttons.

La Russa left right-hander Dan Haren in the game to face the switch-hitting Carlos Beltran -- allowing Beltran to hit left-handed, having already hit six homers in the postseason from that side -- rather than bringing in lefty Ray King to turn Beltran around.

Beltran homered, his legend growing by another degree. His seven homers are one shy of Barry Bonds's 2002 record for the most in a single postseason, and he has tied a major-league record by homering in four straight postseason games.

Two batters later, another slugging switch hitter, Lance Berkman, came to bat for the Astros, and this time La Russa did bring in King to turn Berkman around to the right side of the plate.

Berkman homered. It was 5-2.

La Russa said he thought about bringing in King to face Beltran, but pointed out the Astros had a right-handed batter, Jeff Bagwell, in between the two switch hitters.

Lidge, who had stood by helplessly while his less talented bullpen mates made a mess of Games 1 and 2, procured the final six outs, but not without a scare. Lidge walked one batter and hit another in the top of the ninth, but with two outs and the crowd on its feet, he struck out pinch hitter John Mabry to end the game.

If there was a downside to the Astros' win, it was that they used Clemens for 116 pitches and Lidge for 42, which could compromise the availability of Clemens to come back on three days' rest for a possible Game 6 and of Lidge for Sunday's Game 4.

But that was another problem for another day. Early Saturday evening, his work finished, Clemens exited the stadium along with his family. He was going home.

"I think everyone is enjoying it," Clemens said. "I mean, there's added pressure. But it's no different than [in the past]. No matter my age or what I've done in the past, you want to make a good showing. . . . It's great being at home."

Houston right-hander Roger Clemens holds St. Louis to two runs in seven innings in Game 3. The veteran yielded 4 hits and struck out 7.Carlos Beltran is greeted by his Houston teammates after hitting his seventh homer of the postseason in the 8th inning.Edgar Renteria, front, and coach Mitchell Page are not enjoying the view from the Cardinals' dugout.