Cardinals 5, Astros 2

Roger Clemens was bigger than anyone on the field Thursday night in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series, literally and figuratively. From the mound at Busch Stadium, where he stood with a trip to the World Series on the line, the Houston Astros pitcher, massive of body and legend, looked like he could whup anyone in the St. Louis Cardinals' house in a wrestling match, a beanball war, a show of baseball hardware or a comparison of financial portfolios.

But there was one thing Thursday night for which Clemens was no match. When the Cardinals gathered up 52,140 rabid fans, the most dangerous lineup in the league and a wealth of honor and history into one giant ball and sent it screaming toward Clemens, the big man crumbled.

"You grind and you hope it's good enough," Clemens said. "I felt good about our chances tonight. It just didn't work out. They hit good pitches."

A three-run sixth inning, constructed around the core of the Cardinals' formidable lineup, toppled Clemens, giving the Cardinals a 5-2 victory and their 16th National League pennant. They will face the Boston Red Sox in the World Series, beginning Saturday night.

As the final outs counted down, the crowd punctuated every strike with high-pitched roars. And when Houston's Jose Vizcaino grounded out against closer Jason Isringhausen to end the game, the roar was deafening. The Cardinals streamed out of their dugout and bullpen, gathering near shortstop in a raucous scrum.

"This is what you dream about all your life," said Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols, voted MVP of this NLCS. "Getting the chance to do it against the best pitcher in the league the last 20 years . . . and this is not over."

About a half-hour after the end of the game, Cardinals players suddenly appeared on the home dugout, showering late-staying fans with champagne.

The home team won every game in the series, and the Cardinals, by virtue of a magnificent 105-win season, had the final game at home.

A generation of baseball fans had grown up in St. Louis not remembering what it was like for the Cardinals, one of the game's most storied franchises, to play in a World Series. Their last trip was 1987, and their ninth and last championship was 1982.

The Astros, meantime, will forever be left to wonder if they would have been better off starting Clemens in Game 6 on short rest, and coming back with Roy Oswalt on Thursday night.

Nobody was warming up in the Astros' bullpen as the heart of the Cardinals' order came to the plate in the bottom of the sixth, trailing 2-1, but with the tying run in scoring position and the crowd starting to buzz and crackle with anticipation. The inning, clearly, would belong to Clemens.

Astros Manager Phil Garner went to the mound to talk to Clemens before he faced the slugger Pujols, with the runner now on third and two outs. The discussion centered on whether to walk Pujols -- and take their chances with Scott Rolen -- or pitch to him. They pitched to him.

"We felt like we could make some good pitches on Pujols," Garner said. "We wanted to be very cautious to both guys."

When Pujols turned on an inside fastball, and roped it to left for a double, the game was tied.

And on the first pitch to Rolen, Clemens tried to sneak a 92-mph fastball by him, and Rolen yanked it down the left field line, barely fair and barely high enough to clear the wall -- a drive reminiscent of Mark McGwire's record-breaking 62nd home run in 1998 to almost the same spot.

The Cardinals had their first lead in the game, and they were nine outs from a trip to the World Series.

Those nine outs came courtesy of the Cardinals' bullpen, an inning each by right-handers Kiko Calero and Julian Tavarez (the latter of whom took a comebacker off his broken left hand and crumpled in pain as the eighth inning ended), then closer Isringhausen in the ninth.

In the meantime, the Cardinals added an insurance run in the bottom of the eighth on Larry Walker's broken-bat RBI single against Oswalt, a 20-game winner pressed into relief duty.

Through the first six games of the series, the teams could not have been more evenly matched. Both had scored 29 runs, batted exactly .246 and pitched to identical 4.80 ERAs.

The Astros thought they had the difference-maker in a fully rested Clemens, the greatest pitcher of his generation, unbeaten in three previous Game 7 starts. They had thrown Pete Munro to the lions in Game 6 just so they could have Clemens, fully rested, on the mound in Game 7.

Clemens's first pitch was a 94-mph fastball, trailing flames. His last pitch, also a fastball, blew past Jim Edmonds for a strikeout to end the sixth. Clemens walked off the mound, no doubt realizing he was not going to be the winning pitcher. In fact, he may have further realized it might be the last time he walks off a big-league mound.

If so (Clemens has yet to announce his intentions for next season), it carried none of the drama or impact of his farewell a year ago in Miami, when he was given a touching ovation following his exit in Game 4 of the World Series.

Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa, who has but one championship ring to show for nine previous trips to the postseason, managed with remarkable abandon, making one monumental lineup change -- dropping Tony Womack out of the leadoff spot for the first time all season -- and one daring in-game strategic move, a successful suicide squeeze in the third inning with his starting pitcher, Jeff Suppan, at the plate.

The Cardinals also benefited from a spectacular diving catch by center fielder Edmonds on Brad Ausmus's drive over his head in the second inning.

But it was a show of power that ultimately won the game -- fittingly for a series in which the teams combined for 25 home runs, most ever in a postseason series. And the last swing, as always, belonged to the home team.

Scott Rolen, left, celebrates after hitting a two-run home run off Astros ace Roger Clemens as Cardinals return to World Series for first time since 1987.Roger Clemens, who has yet to announce his return next year, heads for the dugout at the end of the sixth. Pitching on a full four days rest, he allowed six hits and four runs before giving way to Roy Oswalt.Albert Pujols celebrates following the Cardinals' win over Houston; they'll head to Boston for Game 1 of the World Series tomorrow night.