Cardinals 6, Astros 4

As the St. Louis Cardinals poured out of their dugout to swarm Jim Edmonds at home plate Wednesday night, Game 6 of the National League Championship Series having just ended on one mighty swing of Edmonds's bat, one gaunt figure brought up the rear. Julian Tavarez, clubhouse pariah the last 72 hours but now the winning pitcher in a dramatic 12-inning win over the Houston Astros, leaped into the pile, his right hand reaching out to his teammates', his left hand tucked carefully behind his back.

There will be a Game 7 in the NLCS, thanks to Edmonds's dramatic two-run homer off Astros reliever Dan Miceli, which gave the Cardinals a 6-4 win in front of 52,144 at Busch Stadium. It will be Thursday night, with Roger Clemens on the mound for the Astros, Jeff Suppan for the Cardinals. The winner will play the Boston Red Sox in the World Series.

"We finally get to play in a Game 7," Edmonds said. "It's better than going home."

There will be a Game 7 because Edmonds crushed an 0-1 fastball from Miceli into the Cardinals' bullpen in right field with one out in the bottom of the 12th, because Miceli had little choice but to pitch around Albert Pujols two batters before Edmonds, because the Cardinals outlasted three brilliant innings from Astros closer Brad Lidge, and because Astros Manager Phil Garner could not get Roy Oswalt warmed up soon enough to enter the game in the 12th.

But the Cardinals also won because Tavarez, the focus of much angst and controversy the last couple of days, delivered six critical outs despite the pain from a couple of broken bones in his left hand that forced him to catch the return throws from his catcher with two hands.

Three days earlier, Tavarez, the Cardinals' top set-up man, had made a sorry spectacle of himself, giving up the go-ahead runs in Game 4 in Houston, throwing a pitch at Jeff Bagwell's head, then slamming his hand into a dugout phone and breaking his hand. His availability for the rest of the series was in question right up until the time he came into Wednesday's game, after warming up and assuring his coaches he could go.

"I wanted to pitch," Tavarez said. "I wanted to go out there. I told [the coaching staff] right away, 'I want to pitch.' "

Tavarez's two-inning lock-down performance redeemed himself fully with teammates who would not even look at him just a few hours earlier. The guilt, he said, had left him unable to sleep the last few nights.

"Everybody has a right to be upset with me," Tavarez said. "But I can't take it back. I did what I did. I think what I did today -- where I walk away with a win -- I'll get a much better night of sleep."

The Cardinals were one out away from winning the game in the bottom of the ninth when Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell singled sharply to left against closer Jason Isringhausen, scoring Morgan Ensberg from second base with the tying run with two outs in the ninth. Ensberg had been hit by a pitch to lead off the inning, then was sacrificed to second by pinch hitter Eric Bruntlett.

It was Isringhausen's second inning of work, and it came two days after he served up Jeff Kent's game-winning, three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth in Houston in Game 5. As in that game, the critical hit was preceded by an intentional walk; this time, the Cardinals chose to walk Carlos Beltran with two outs and a base open, preferring -- understandably, given Beltran's heroics in this series -- to take their chances with Bagwell.

Like Kent had done in Game 5, Bagwell jumped on Isringhausen's first pitch, rifling it into left field.

Lidge, the Astros' dominating closer, added to his growing legend with three hitless innings of relief, part of 82/3 straight scoreless innings turned in by the Astros' much-maligned bullpen prior to Miceli's entrance. In the series, Lidge has pitched eight scoreless innings (spread out over four appearances), allowing only one hit while striking out 14 batters.

But the Astros pinch-hit for Lidge in the top of the 12th, and Garner called upon Miceli to pitch the bottom half. Miceli's ledger in this series now includes two appearances, 11/3 innings and three home runs allowed.

Oswalt, a 20-game winner who started Game 4 for the Astros, was warming up alongside Miceli. But Oswalt, a starting pitcher, was unaccustomed to warming up so quickly, and thus was not ready when the bottom of the 12th began.

"Got to get the guy back on the horse when he falls off," Garner said about his continued faith in Miceli.

Garner had tried to paint his decision to start journeyman right-hander Pete Munro on Wednesday -- rather than bringing back Roger Clemens on three days' rest -- as giving the Astros their best chance to win Game 6. But it was hard to see it as anything other than the rotation-strategy equivalent of a sacrifice bunt.

The Astros would sacrifice Munro as their Game 6 starter and take their chances with a fully rested Clemens at the plate, so to speak, in Game 7. And if the Cardinals fumbled the sacrifice, allowing the Astros to steal the game, all the better. That would have left Clemens to start Game 1 of the World Series in either Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium, both former Clemens haunts.

But Munro was, well, Munro. Which is to say, he pitched like a guy who has been in five organizations in the last six years, a guy who had a career record of 13-19 in the big leagues entering the postseason. Pujols tagged him for a two-run homer in the bottom of the first -- wiping out the Astros' early lead -- and Edgar Renteria's two-run single in the bottom of the third, the Cardinals' eighth hit against Munro, finally ended his day.

The Astros are 1-6 all-time in games in which they could clinch a playoff series. They will have one more chance Thursday night, with Clemens, a 328-game winner, on the mound. Things could be worse.

"Game 7 against Roger Clemens," Edmonds mused. "How much better does it get?"

Marlon Anderson, Scott Rolen, Edgar Renteria and Larry Walker, from left to right, celebrate as they wait for teammate Jim Edmonds to cross the plate after his game-winning home run.Jim Edmonds celebrates as he rounds the bases after hitting a two-run homer off Dan Miceli.Jim Edmonds jumps into the arms of his waiting teammates at home plate after hitting a game-winning two-run homer, forcing the Cardinals and Astros to battle one more time for the right to face the Red Sox in the World Series.Albert Pujols of the Cardinals points to the sky after hitting a two-run homer in the first inning of Game 6.