Astros 4, Cardinals 1
There weren't going to be many of these chances, not Thursday night, not even with the St. Louis Cardinals, on a postseason roll, with two runners on, threatening to score. The problem for the Cardinals took the form of a wispy, 28-year-old right-hander from Mississippi. Roy Oswalt might seem all country, backwoods drawl, but ask Jim Edmonds how he throws when he's protecting a narrow lead, when the red-clad fans that fill Busch Stadium are yearning for a hit.
"He is," Edmonds said, "as good as it gets in the league."
So twice in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series, Oswalt faced Edmonds with the Cardinals threatening. And twice he took command of the situation, shrugging off the runners, shrugging off some narrowly missed calls, shrugging off the threat presented by Edmonds. Both times, he retired the Cardinals' veteran center fielder, and therein lies the reason the Houston Astros beat St. Louis, 4-1, to even the series at a game apiece.
Oswalt's line is typical of his 20-win season, seven innings in which he allowed five hits, never more than one in an inning, and struck out six. He outdueled St. Louis left-hander Mark Mulder because the Astros played the role of the Cardinals, manufacturing a couple of runs early, getting a key offensive lift from rookie Chris Burke, who had two hits, scored twice and drove in a run. And when Oswalt finally tired, the Astros were able to turn to closer Brad Lidge, he of the unhittable stuff, to toss the eighth and ninth innings, closing out the game and sending the series to Houston for Saturday's Game 3.
"You get Oswalt for seven, eight innings," Edmonds said, "then you throw Lidge out there, you might as well throw up your hands. . . . You guys try it. It's fun."
If there is an edge in Edmonds's comments, it isn't difficult to trace. The Astros went up 2-0 on Mulder -- who managed seven innings and allowed just one earned run despite the fact that he was struck in the left biceps by a line drive in his last start -- after five, and the Cardinals had hardly threatened. It was the first time in five playoff games that St. Louis has trailed, and it put Edmonds in a position that has been, in this postseason, unfamiliar -- trying to bring the Cardinals back.
In the fifth, Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina hit a one-out double, but after Oswalt struck out Mulder, shortstop David Eckstein walked, putting runners at first and second. Edmonds had singled sharply in his first at-bat, and he seemed calm under the scruff of his beard, the face of a veteran who is familiar with such situations.
Oswalt, though, came after him, and the two tangled in a classic at-bat. Twice, Oswalt thought Edmonds had taken strikes on the inside corner. Twice, home plate umpire Greg Gibson called them balls. When Gibson ruled a 2-2 fastball was just off the plate, Oswalt screamed in anguish, then collected himself.
"There are times when any pitcher will allow a call to affect him," Houston catcher Brad Ausmus said. "There's a microscope on these games, because there's only four teams left in baseball. A lot of guys would get upset."
Oswalt, though, walked back up the slope of the mound, put his foot on the rubber, and thought about what he wanted to do. Ausmus's mind was clear. With Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols, perhaps the game's best hitter, on deck, the Astros couldn't afford to walk Edmonds. So Ausmus called for a fastball, exactly what Edmonds expected.
"You're always looking fastball," Edmonds said.
Oswalt thought differently.
"We had been busting him in with fastballs a lot through the years, and in key situations. . . . " Oswalt said. "I knew, 3-2 there, that he knew my mentality where I don't give in. I throw fastballs in the zone and make him hit it. I figured if I can start a slider a little bit out off the plate, that he'd give up on it."
So Oswalt shook off the fastball, and Ausmus reluctantly accepted the slider. It was a wicked pitch, one that broke right at Edmonds's knees, and the 35-year-old couldn't even lift his bat. Gibson called strike three, and the threat was over.
When Edmonds came up again in the seventh, the Cardinals were within 2-1, because Pujols had hit a laser of a home run in the sixth, the only scratch against Oswalt. Again, Molina had doubled. Again, there were runners on first and second. Again, there were two outs. And again, Oswalt came with the slider, this time on the first pitch.
Edmonds tried to be aggressive, and he swung. But his hands rolled over it, and all he could manage was a weak ground ball to first. It was the last of the 108 pitches Oswalt threw, and he showed as much emotion as he did all night, pumping his fist just a tad.
"We're in a situation where you've got two outs, and you need a clutch hit," Cardinals second baseman Mark Grudzielanek said. "Against a guy like that, you're not always going to get a lot of chances. And when we did, to be honest, I thought we pressed a little bit."
With that, the Astros pounced on reliever Julian Tavarez for a pair of runs in the eighth, and Astros Manager Phil Garner gave the ball to Lidge, who allowed only two hits and no runs in seven appearances against the Cardinals this year. He set the side down in order in the eighth, allowed a one-out single in the ninth, but nothing else.
Lidge, then, was credited with the save. But don't tell that to Edmonds.
"Those at-bats," Ausmus said, "they were the big ones in the game."