It will be thrown together with the shots we see again and again this time of year, with Kirk Gibson against Dennis Eckersley, with Dave Henderson against Donnie Moore, even with the home runs that ended World Series, those by Bill Mazeroski and Joe Carter. "How can it not be?" St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Mark Grudzielanek asked Tuesday afternoon, the memory of the game-winning home run hit by teammate Albert Pujols still playing in a continuous loop on "SportsCenter."
Pujols's homer, a three-run blast with two outs and his team trailing the Houston Astros by two runs in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, remained the talk of baseball, of sports on Tuesday, and well it should. It was the kind of event that has one team boarding a plane, as the Cardinals did early Tuesday morning, comparing how many messages, all jubilant, each had on his cell phone. It was the kind of event that begins strategic discussions that will last for generations as the debate raged on about whether Astros closer Brad Lidge should have walked Pujols, the most feared right-handed hitter in the game.
It was the kind of event that is difficult to move past, even with Game 6 set to take place here Wednesday night and the Astros still holding a three-games-to-two lead, still one win from their first World Series.
"It was probably the best hit in my career," Pujols said. "But that happened last night. It's over. You need to get it over with."
That was difficult Tuesday. It could remain difficult forever. In the broad view, Pujols changed baseball history, for the image of his swing, somehow simultaneously smooth and violent, will be replayed in Octobers for 5, 10, 20, "200 years," Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa said. "I think it would be tied for first with the most dramatic home runs that have ever been hit."
But it also fundamentally changed this series. The Cardinals' clubhouse in Houston after Games 3 and 4 seemed to be a den of tension, with key players worried about slumping at the wrong time, with La Russa's clenched jaw seemingly setting the tone. Tuesday afternoon, the mellow tones of musician Jack Johnson wafted through the air, and everyone -- from La Russa to General Manager Walt Jocketty to each and every Cardinal -- seemed to have at least the remains of a smile at the corners of his mouth.
"We're seconds away from ending the season, and now here we are, back at home," Grudzielanek said. "We have to get some lift from that."
There is evidence, both back through the years and in the Astros' demeanor Tuesday, that blows such as Pujols's have lasting impacts on the teams that allow them. La Russa managed the Oakland Athletics in 1988 when Gibson, so hobbled he was unable to play in the field, came to the plate as a pinch hitter with two outs and Mike Davis on first, the Los Angeles Dodgers trailing by a run in the first game of the World Series. Davis stole second, and Gibson flipped a pitch from Eckersley, the game's premier closer, into the right field seats at Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers went on to dominate the series, winning in five games.
"It was an incredibly heroic kind of at-bat, if you can use 'hero' in sports," La Russa said Tuesday. "But I think beyond that performance, they won the world championship, and that's made it one of the greatest at-bats of all-time."
Henderson's homer, hit for the Boston Red Sox against the California Angels in Game 5 of the 1986 American League Championship Series, is perhaps the most analogous, because the Red Sox trailed three games to one and by three runs entering the bottom of the ninth, then by a run after Don Baylor hit a two-run homer off Mike Witt. When Moore came in, Henderson worked the count to 2-2. Then, Moore went back to his signature pitch, a split-fingered fastball. Henderson reached low to get it, lifting it over the left field wall. The Angels tied the score in the bottom of the ninth, but Henderson's sacrifice fly in the 11th won it, and the Red Sox' season was saved, just as the Cardinals' season was saved Monday. Boston returned home and won Games 6 and 7 by the combined score of 18-5.
"It was huge," Bob Boone, the Angels' catcher that day, said in a telephone interview Tuesday. "We didn't play good after that. I mean, we're holding a team meeting before the next game, and we're kind of joking that, 'If we're holding a team meeting, we must be in trouble.' "
Boone watched Pujols's homer Monday night on television, and the similarities leapt to mind. "It was the same thing," he said. "A struggling team that's trying to get there for the first time. They're ready to celebrate in front of their home fans. All the elements were there. We couldn't recover. I'm not sure Houston can."
Such is the toll the Astros deal with now. To a man, they played up how much adversity they have overcome since starting the season 15-30. They pointed out that they still hold the advantage, needing just one win. They defended the decision to pitch to Pujols, rather than walking the bases full to face Reggie Sanders.
"That would've been asinine," Astros catcher Brad Ausmus said.
Still, they gave off telltale signs of a team still dealing with the effects of being a strike away from the World Series, and then losing the game. "Last night's loss," rookie Chris Burke admitted, "obviously is going to stick with you a little bit." And they talked frequently not of winning Game 6, but of the fact that they have Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens lined up to pitch the next two games.
"We've got one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball going tomorrow," Houston General Manager Tim Purpura said, "and we've got another dominant pitcher going the night after that."
Yet both history and the Cardinals made things seem like the series has changed. The Cardinals, in turn, talked frequently of making sure Pujols's accomplishment stands up.
"Unless we can get a couple of wins, it won't be as great a story," La Russa said.
But people around the Cardinals, and people around these situations before, can sense something.
"To me, it was almost as if St. Louis tied the series," Boone said. "That's how big the momentum swing can be. It wouldn't surprise me if we'll look back at that home run forever as one of the most dramatic and significant of all time."