Cardinals 5, Astros 4
-- This is Albert Pujols walking down the hallway, one giant stride at a time, with his shoulders swaying softly. He has a smile of joy, not a smirk of arrogance. The front of his shirt reads, "Who's Your Daddy?"
Players' wives are clapping and front office types are yelling. His agent appears, beaming. And Pujols, who seldom displays any emotion, actually manages the same type of smile. Because he is the hero tonight, the man who put the St. Louis Cardinals on his massive back and with one mighty swing sent this National League Championship Series back to St. Louis. His three-run, two-out home run in the ninth inning against Houston Astros closer Brad Lidge gave the Cardinals a 5-4 win in Game 5 of this NLCS, preventing their elimination.
That's why he's beaming and the reason why everyone in this hallway just outside the Cardinals' clubhouse has begun to clap. As far as they are concerned, he is the daddy. But Pujols doesn't think so. The back of his shirt says "Jesus." And when he stood in the on-deck circle while his team trailed by two runs against Lidge in loud Minute Maid Stadium with the Astros just one out away from their first World Series appearance, he had one simple wish.
"Give me the strength, Lord, to have one at-bat."
On this day 45 years ago, a dry dusty town in the middle of Texas was awarded a baseball team. It seemed unimaginable that a place so hot could have a baseball team. So a dome was built to house the team and bring in fans, but eventually that dome became outdated and a new facility was built. And it was there, on the franchise's 45th birthday, that its biggest moment seemingly had arrived.
On a first-pitch fastball in the eighth inning by Chris Carpenter of St. Louis, Astros left fielder Lance Berkman sent a three-run home run to left field that seemed to ensure Houston's first trip to the World Series. The Cardinals had a two-run lead and Lidge was in the bullpen and certainly this was it. It had to be. The fans sensed it and celebrated it.
"It was the loudest I've ever heard it," Houston third baseman Morgan Ensberg said.
Lidge started the top of the ninth by striking out the first two batters. The fans waved white towels, surrendering to their celebration. The champagne was in the Astros' clubhouse and the party was ready to start.
Then came that pesky David Eckstein, who fell behind in the count but punched a single past diving shortstop Adam Everett. Pujols moved into the on-deck circle.
"I was just mainly trying to sit and see a pitch," Eckstein said. "You don't want to sit there and jump out, because if you jump out, you end up popping the fastball up and you swing through the slider."
That brought up Jim Edmonds. "I was just thinking that Jimmy could hit the ball out of the park to tie the game," Pujols said. Instead, Lidge did the unthinkable. He walked Edmonds, and had to face Pujols.
The first pitch was a wicked slider that Pujols swung past. It did not look pretty. Rarely does Pujols look so feeble on a swing. So Lidge tried the slider again. And Pujols did not miss. He sent it more than 400 feet, into the glass casing of the retractable roof.
"That was amazing," Cardinals outfielder Larry Walker said. "There was more noise in our bench than there was in the entire park. It got really quiet."
And that was why Pujols was walking in that hallway, with everyone cheering, and a smile actually creeping up on his face. He shuns the cameras almost every day. He will tell reporters in a surly tone to go away on most occasions. But not on this day. Here he stands and talks to every reporter, telling each this was his biggest hit, one of many more to come, he hoped. He was the daddy.