Astros 3, Cardinals 0

The ball had barely left the barrel of Jeff Kent's bat, and the silence had yet to be broken by 43,045 ecstatic screams, when the Houston Astros' second baseman, in one motion, flipped aside his bat and turned to his dugout with his fist in the air. Kent was the first to know, but soon everyone else did, too. The ball was heading into some faraway corner of Minute Maid Park. The game was over. The National League Championship Series was headed back to St. Louis with the Astros in control.

What soon sunk in amid the roar and the rapture was that Kent had just smashed a three-run homer, giving the Astros a 3-0 victory in Game 5 of the NLCS and a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. Having come here three days ago trailing by two games, the Astros ran the table at home. Now, with Game 6 scheduled for Wednesday night at Busch Stadium, they are one win away from the first World Series appearance in franchise history.

"We're just feeding off each other right now," said Astros closer Brad Lidge, who worked a scoreless ninth inning -- his fifth inning of work in the last three days -- to earn the win. "We have so much confidence in this place. We just felt we were going to win."

The starters for Wednesday night's Game 6 remain a tightly guarded secret. "We're not trying to get to Game 7," said Cardinals third baseman Scott Rolen. "We're at Game 7, no matter what they call it. We have to win. We have no choice."

An exquisite pitchers' duel between Houston's Brandon Backe and St. Louis's Woody Williams -- who allowed only one hit apiece in 15 combined scoreless frames -- gave way to a duel of closers, Lidge against Jason Isringhausen.

With the game still scoreless in the bottom of the ninth, the Astros' Carlos Beltran, who has dominated this postseason with eight homers in nine games, led off with a single to right. Two batters later, he stole second on a 1-2 pitch to Lance Berkman, and with the base now open and a 2-2 count, Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa chose to have Isringhausen walk the switch-hitting Berkman intentionally to pitch to the right-handed-hitting Kent.

"You have the double play in order," La Russa said of the decision. "[And] Berkman is swinging the bat too well."

Kent -- who, as Barry Bonds's "protection" for nearly six years in San Francisco, knows well the feeling of standing in the on-deck circle and seeing a teammate intentionally walked -- was "up there looking to hack right away," he said later. "I'm swinging. I hack."

On the first pitch, Isringhausen threw Kent a cut fastball, and Kent pounced. Within an instant, the ball was heading out of the yard, the Astros were streaming out of their dugout for a mad celebration at home plate, and the crowd was exploding in rapture.

"Back when we were in St. Louis, I watched Albert Pujols hit the game-winning home run against us [in the eighth inning of Game 2] and saw the excitement in his body language," Kent said. "I wanted to feel like that."

A classic pitchers' duel may have been commonplace in years past, but this is a different type of postseason, one in which a team can score eight runs in a game and still lose by 11, one in which a single player can hit more postseason home runs in a week and a half than the entire Astros team hit in the 1997, 1998 and 1999 postseasons combined. Thus, Monday night's battle felt almost quaint.

"Coming to the ballpark today," said Astros left fielder Craig Biggio, "I don't think anyone expected one-hitters on both sides going into the ninth inning."

Backe flirted briefly with perfection, not allowing a base runner until walking Jim Edmonds with one out in the fifth. The Cardinals did not collect their first hit until Tony Womack smoked a 2-2 slider through the right side of the Astros' infield for a clean single with two outs in the sixth.

He navigated the treacherous heart of the Cardinals' order -- Larry Walker, Pujols, Rolen and Edmonds, with a .417 combined batting average and eight homers in the series through four games -- with uncommon aplomb. Of that foursome, only Edmonds, with a fly ball to center, managed to hit a ball out of the infield against Backe.

"It was just two [pitchers] out there who got into a groove," Backe said, "and didn't want to give up anything."

Astros Manager Phil Garner decided to pinch-hit for Backe in the bottom of the eighth and brought in Lidge, despite the fact Backe had thrown only 101 pitches and Lidge had worked two innings in each of the previous two afternoons.

Garner explained he was concerned about Backe letting down after losing the no-hitter, and he also knew from speaking to Lidge before the game that he was good for one inning.

"It was fortunate," Garner said, "that's all it took."

Williams, too, pitched a wonderful game, leaving after seven innings and 94 pitches. La Russa, who revealed afterward that Williams had strained a calf muscle running out a fly ball in the third inning, called the performance "heroic."

For once, the Cardinals did not let Beltran beat them with his power at the plate. Still, Beltran's tools are such that he does not need a bat to impact the game. With two outs in the seventh, the center fielder made a ranging, diving catch of Edgar Renteria's soft fly ball in left-center, then, an inning later, climbed the unique hill in Minute Maid Park's center field to run down Reggie Sanders's 420-foot blast.

The scoreless tie was preserved, and an inning later the Astros had their 22nd win in their last 23 games at home.

"I'm not naive enough to think it's not going to be a tough run," said Jeff Bagwell, speaking of the task of winning one more game in St. Louis. "But I like our position."

Houston's Brandon Backe celebrates as he leaves the field after the 8th inning. He yielded only one hit.Jeff Kent flips his helmet away and arrives at home to a big welcoming committee after clobbering a 3-run, game-winning homer in the 9th off Jason Isringhausen. The Cardinals' Woody Williams delivers during his seven scoreless innings of one-hit ball as he matched Astros starter Brandon Backe pitch for pitch.