Astros 6, Cardinals 5
Had Carlos Beltran not swung at the down-and-in slider in the bottom of the seventh inning of Game 4 of the National League Championship Series, it might have clipped him on the top of the shoes, or skidded through the dirt to the backstop. But if Beltran had not swung at Julian Tavarez's slop-ball offering, he probably would have swung at the next one, and the result undoubtedly would have been the same. These days, Beltran doesn't miss, no matter where you throw it.
Because Beltran did in fact swing at the pitch, golfing it over the right-center field fence at Minute Maid Park, the Astros vaulted to a 6-5 win over the St. Louis Cardinals in front of 42,760 raucous fans. And largely because they have Beltran on their side, the Astros now find themselves tied in the best-of-seven series at two games apiece, with Game 5 set for Monday night.
"It's hard to describe how I feel right now," Beltran said. "This is what you look for as a player."
A classic game of clutch hitting, strategic machinations, fraying emotions and huge momentum swings ultimately turned on Beltran's one-out homer on the ill-fated 2-2 slider from Tavarez. All that was left was two overpowering innings from closer Brad Lidge, and the Astros had their 21st win in their last 22 home games.
"I tell you what," said Astros Manager Phil Garner, "that kid is some kind of locked in."
The Cardinals, who held a commanding 2-0 lead in the series just 48 hours ago, suddenly face a best-of-three miniseries, knowing Roger Clemens is waiting for them in one of those games, and knowing Beltran is waiting for them four or five times in every game. How are the Cardinals supposed to pitch to this guy?
"I don't know -- maybe walk him every time," Tavarez said. "What he's doing is unbelievable. I've never seen anybody have the kind of postseason he's having."
Neither has history. Beltran's homer was his eighth of this postseason, tying the record set by Barry Bonds in 2002. Bonds did it in 17 games. Beltran has done it in nine. He has also set another all-time record with homers in five straight postseason games.
"I'm not trying to set records, man," Beltran said. "I'm just trying to do my part."
The Astros have become masters of the art of the comeback this season -- whether it's from seven games back in the standings on Aug. 14, or from a 2-0 series deficit to the Cardinals entering the weekend, or, as the case was Sunday afternoon, from two runs down with four innings to play, 12 outs from being placed on the edge of postseason oblivion.
Suitably convinced of the desperation of their plight, the Astros, as always, began to fight back.
"This team has been through a lot. A whole lot," said veteran first baseman Jeff Bagwell. "But every time we've had our backs to the wall, we've responded."
Down 5-3 as the bottom of the sixth inning began, Astros right fielder Lance Berkman cut the lead to one with a leadoff homer against Cardinals right-hander Kiko Calero. Three batters later, shortstop Jose Vizcaino singled into the left field corner, and the next batter, catcher Raul Chavez, lifted a weak, end-of-the-bat, bloop job into shallow center field to score Vizcaino with the tying run.
An inning later, Beltran came to the plate to face Tavarez with one out. When Tavarez threw him a couple of sliders that Beltran took -- one for a strike, one for a ball -- Beltran figured he would come back with another one on 2-2.
"I told myself, 'Just relax, stay back and try to put the ball in play,' " Beltran said. "And that's what I did."
While the homer sent the crowd of screaming, towel-waving fanatics into a frenzy, is seemed to send Tavarez into a meltdown. In the next few moments, he threw a pitch behind Bagwell's head -- drawing some angry words from Bagwell -- loaded the bases on another walk and a hit batter, pitched his way out of the mess by inducing a double-play grounder from Morgan Ensberg, and flew into a rage in the Cardinals' dugout.
"I lost control," Tavarez admitted.
There was still the matter of those final six outs the Astros had to secure, following a decidedly mediocre six-inning start from Roy Oswalt and an uneventful seventh inning by right-hander Dan Wheeler. For those final six outs, the Astros turned to Lidge, their practically unhittable closer, who was called upon for two innings despite having thrown 42 pitches in a two-inning save the day before.
"He came to the ballpark, said he felt great, said he felt better than [Saturday]," Garner said. "I said, 'Good. You're going to pitch two innings today.' End of conversation."
Lidge procured those six outs with barely a stumble -- just a one-out walk to Larry Walker in the ninth, followed by a one-handed lunge-swing by slugger Albert Pujols that nonetheless sent a fly ball to the edge of the warning track in left. As Lidge faced Scott Rolen with two outs in the ninth, the entire crowd was on its feet, exploding when Rolen whiffed on a fastball.
So, it all keeps rolling on -- the fascinating NLCS, the coming-out party for the sweet-swinging Beltran, the remarkable ride that is the Astros' season. Some might say their story is downright magical.
"When you go 36-10," said Astros veteran left fielder Craig Biggio, referring to the team's closing stretch that earned them the wild card, "you must have something magical going on."