Astros 4, Cardinals 3

There is nothing quite certain in the postseason, but Brad Lidge comes close. It appears the Houston Astros need only to give a lead to their closer and a win is all but ensured. So it was a surprise when Lidge remained in the bullpen in the eighth inning and reliever Chad Qualls ran back onto the mound.

The middle of the St. Louis batting order was coming to the plate and the Astros were hanging on to a two-run lead. It was a decision that had been made mostly by catcher Brad Ausmus, who advised Manager Phil Garner that Qualls should not come out, even with Lidge in the bullpen.

"I think Brad was talking to him about how my sinker was working really well," Qualls said.

Of course Lidge closed the game out in the ninth inning, but it was Qualls who was the most important pitcher in Houston's 4-3 win against the Cardinals that gave the Astros a 2-1 lead in this National League Championship Series.

Ausmus spoke up after a scoreless seventh inning in which Qualls struck out two of the three batters. That Qualls had struck out both with his sinker, which usually is put in play, made an impression.

"That inning was as good as I've seen him throw," Ausmus said.

The final out of that inning was a strikeout of So Taguchi. Despite the effectiveness of his sinker, Qualls kept asking Ausmus for another pitch with the count 2-2. Ausmus kept putting down the sign for the sinker.

"He wanted to throw a slider with [Albert] Pujols on deck," Ausmus said. "I told him it wasn't a good idea."

Qualls easily dispatched Pujols, Jim Edmonds, and Larry Walker in the eighth. None of the three hit the ball out of the infield.

"He was just outstanding," Lidge said. "He was the player of the game. Those were the two most important innings of the game."

Lidge allowed a run in the ninth, which ended his scoreless streak at 161/3 innings. He had not allowed a run to the Cardinals in the postseason in 102/3 innings prior to John Mabry's RBI double.

"They're too good to keep down forever," Lidge said.

With Mabry at second base, David Eckstein hit a soft fly ball caught by center fielder Willy Tavares, who began the game on the bench because Chris Burke, an infielder by trade, had been too hot at the plate to keep out of the lineup. Burke's inexperience in center had cost the Astros a run in the sixth, so Garner replaced him with Tavares to start the eighth inning.

"Fortunately we had a fast guy out there in center field," Lidge said of the final play.

Saturday was the rare day when Roger Clemens had not been the best pitcher on his team. The likely Hall of Famer started well but appeared tired by the middle of the game. He allowed two runs in six innings.

"He was strong through the fourth," Ausmus said, "but I think after the fifth and sixth innings he got gassed."

Houston had given Clemens a 2-0 lead with a two-run homer by Mike Lamb against Cardinals starter Matt Morris that just cleared the short left field wall.

"I didn't think he hit it that good," Morris said. "He didn't hit it that good."

That left field wall at Minute Maid Park has served the Astros well recently. Last Sunday, two home runs to that short porch helped the Astros to a 7-6 win against the Atlanta Braves in Game 4 of the National League Division Series. The deciding home run, hit in the 18th inning by Burke, cleared the fence by a few feet. Lance Berkman's grand slam earlier in the game had traveled the same distance and in fact had been caught by the same fan.

"For me it is big because I use the whole field," Lamb said. "I've never been adverse to hitting a ball that way and now it's an advantage for me."

It is a wall of dubious distinction that has given up home runs to even the most feeble hitter. The wall is actually five feet farther back than Fenway Park's Green Monster but is likely one-third the size.

"It's tough in this park with lefties," Morris said. "You throw a sinker down and away and they hit it out."

The Astros scored two runs in the sixth, the last coming on an error by third baseman Fernando Luna, who had replaced the injured Abraham Nunez. The error loomed big as the Astros were able to hand the ball to Qualls for the seventh and eighth.

Qualls said he was surprised to have started the eighth inning. In the bullpen he told reliever Dan Wheeler that it was almost certain Lidge would pitch two innings. Even after his dominating seventh inning, Qualls was surprised he was allowed to go to the eighth to face the three most dangerous hitters in the St. Louis order.

"That was pretty much the save inning," Qualls said.

There is no point in taking offense, Qualls said, when Garner brings in Lidge to pitch two innings for a save. It had happened in Game 2 on Thursday and it's likely to happen again. But for one night, the game had been saved by Qualls and his two scoreless innings.

Roger Clemens, 43, again delivers for the Astros, giving up just two runs on six hits in six innings. Chad Qualls and Brad Lidge provided strong relief.