-- Nearly 30 minutes after his St. Louis Cardinals were pushed to the brink of elimination Sunday evening, Jim Edmonds stood in the visitors' clubhouse at Minute Maid Park wearing a gray T-shirt, blue athletic shorts and flip-flops. He stared at a video monitor, and a Cardinals' employee rewound the play in question. Edmonds watched it, saw the same thing: The pitch from Houston's Dan Wheeler flew toward home plate. It darted toward Edmonds's hands. Edmonds pulled back and jumped away. And home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi signaled a strike.
"That ball is not a strike," Edmonds said he told Cuzzi. "You've got to do a better job than that."
Then, Edmonds said, Cuzzi reprimanded him. "He told me, 'Don't [expletive] come back here and argue with me,' " Edmonds said. And a few moments later, in the eighth inning of a one-run game in the playoffs, Edmonds was ejected, the Cardinals' second ejection of the day by Cuzzi, a symbol of how their season is coming apart.
The Astros took a 2-1 victory over the Cardinals in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series, seizing a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, because they allowed the Cardinals just five hits, and because, with the tying run on third in the ninth, closer Brad Lidge induced a double-play ball to end the game. But the action really started two innings earlier when Cuzzi tossed Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa, then ejected Edmonds in the eighth.
La Russa's ejection came with the score tied 1-1 and Astros on first and second in the bottom of the seventh. Cardinals right-hander Jason Marquis threw ball four to Lance Berkman, a pitch that narrowly missed, loading the bases. The Cardinals had issues with Cuzzi's strike zone all day, and La Russa began yelling from the dugout.
"It seemed like you'd throw a pitch in a place where you think it's a strike, and he'd call it," Marquis said. "And then you'd throw a pitch in the same spot and he didn't call it."
La Russa came to the top step of the dugout to yell, then stepped back down. Cuzzi, in television replays, appeared to yell back at La Russa. Players and coaches are subject to automatic ejection for arguing balls and strikes, and La Russa was tossed. Only then did he come onto the field, arguing briefly with Cuzzi, who then walked away. La Russa continued his argument with umpire Tim McClelland, the crew chief.
The next hitter, Morgan Ensberg, drove in what turned out to be the winning run with a sacrifice fly.
"I believe Major League Baseball [officials are] here in force," La Russa said afterward. "I know what they tell us about certain latitudes you get in postseason play, because you're supposed to be emotional and try and win this."
Baseball officials, however, prohibited the media from speaking with Cuzzi because the plays in question did not involve a rules interpretation. A security guard outside the umpires' dressing room said it was off limits.
La Russa headed to the clubhouse and watched the rest of the game on television. What he saw surprised him even more. In the eighth, the Cardinals had a runner on first with two outs. Edmonds worked the count to 3-1, and took what he thought was ball four, inside. Cuzzi indicated otherwise, and Edmonds said he told Cuzzi he didn't think it was a strike. When Cuzzi ordered Edmonds back in the box -- Edmonds said he never cursed, but Cuzzi did -- he was surprised.
"I didn't really get the response I thought I deserved," Edmonds said. "I think we're supposed to be able to go back and forth a little bit. I didn't want to show him up."
The argument lasted only a few seconds, and Cuzzi ejected Edmonds. He joined La Russa in the clubhouse. There they pondered the bizarre day that moved them one step closer to the offseason.