Astros 2, Cardinals 1

-- They jumped out of the dugout Sunday as if they had already booked their plane tickets to the World Series and the champagne was waiting in the clubhouse. There is still one more game to win, but it is all now falling so perfectly into place for the Houston Astros, who have never before tasted so much joy or felt so close to a championship. A painful ninth inning had tested them, and when they survived, they celebrated boisterously.

"It was an extraordinary end to a difficult, tight-fought game," catcher Brad Ausmus said. "It was an exhale of jubilation."

Houston Manager Phil Garner seemingly can do no wrong and his players are flawless in pressure situations, such as when a slow ground ball hit to a backup infielder starts a difficult double play that has the Astros one win away from the World Series. After a 2-1 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series, they have a 3-1 lead in the series, and only a collapse can keep them from their first World Series.

A game that had been so slow and tedious turned nerve-wracking for Houston in the ninth inning when the Cardinals' Albert Pujols and Larry Walker singled against closer Brad Lidge, putting men on first and third with no outs. This is not common for Lidge. He rarely fails and does so even less in the postseason. But there he was in a tight situation and even the most optimistic Astro thought this game was destined for at least another inning.

"My gut said it would be a tie game," Ausmus said.

The first task was to get out Reggie Sanders, who hit a ground ball to third baseman Morgan Ensberg. With the Cardinals' offense appearing more meek every day, Pujols said he felt he had no choice but to take a chance despite third base coach Jose Oquendo's objections.

"He told me to stay at third," Pujols said. "But I read the ball and I thought the ball was going to die in the grass. It was instinct."

The third baseman threw home and Pujols was out.

"That was easy because you saw Pujols running in front of you," Ensberg said. "There was really no other play."

Then confusion came. After Ensberg's throw to nab Pujols, Ausmus stood at home with the ball and Walker took the opportunity to run to third base.

"When Albert slid into home plate," Ausmus said, "his foot hit my cleat and I was limping. I was thinking that time was going to be called."

But it wasn't. Instead Walker, who had taken second base on the play, decided to take a chance and run to third while Ausmus held the ball. The catcher, not noticing Walker, flipped the ball to Lidge.

"I thought there was time called," Lidge said. "Apparently there wasn't time called. I turned my back to second base."

Second baseman Eric Bruntlett, who had entered the game as a defensive replacement to start the inning, yelled but could not be heard because of the crowd noise. Walker easily advanced, and once again the Cardinals had the tying run at home plate with less than two outs and were just a sacrifice fly away from sending the game to the bottom of the ninth.

"The crowd noise I used to my benefit," Walker said. "Once he handed the ball off to Lidge I knew I could make it. It could have been a really dumb play, too. If I get thrown out, I'm an idiot."

So there stood Walker at third, and Lidge could only take a deep breath and hope that he could get a ground ball for a double play. So with John Mabry at the plate, Lidge threw a slider. The ball was hit slowly to Bruntlett.

"At first I thought it might have been hit too slowly," Lidge said.

"I wasn't sure," Bruntlett said. "I knew at least we'd get the runner on second base. That was an amazing turn. That's one of the best I've ever seen."

Bruntlett quickly threw to shortstop Adam Everett. He later said it was the hardest throw to second on a double play he had ever made in his life.

"Everything fell into place, it was unbelievable," Everett said. "When he threw it to me, I just winged it."

First baseman Lance Berkman reached for the ball. Mabry crossed the base a quick moment after Berkman caught the ball. It seemed close. Berkman said it wasn't. Replays showed it was.

"It's probably one of the best double plays I've seen in my life," Berkman said. "I haven't seen too many people capable of turning that double play."

Garner had decided to put Bruntlett at second base. It was Garner who had put in Willy Tavares to pinch-run in the seventh inning. He scored on a relatively shallow fly ball. Tavares then made a catch in center field in the eighth that saved a run.

"He's a genius," Bruntlett said of Garner. "He seems to know all the right moves."

When the double play was turned, the Houston bench emptied and players ran on the field and hugged one another. They can feel it now. It is close.

"It was because of the nature of how things unfolded," Lidge said. "We are an extremely emotional group.

"It just seems amazing now. But we've got to concentrate on tomorrow."

The Cardinals' Albert Pujols looks to the umpire after being tagged out at home plate while trying to score the game-tying run in the ninth inning.