Astros 5, Cardinals 1
-- The electricity flowed through Busch Stadium even three hours before game time Wednesday, when St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols strolled onto the field to take some groundballs, and a crew of stadium workers boisterously cheered the hero come home. They couldn't know it then, but the ballpark the Cardinals called home for the past 40 seasons was about to host its final game, and the only bolt of electricity that mattered would flow through the right arm of Roy Oswalt, the wisp of a man from Mississippi who took the mound, kicked at the rubber and sent the Houston Astros to the World Series for the first time.
The Astros won the National League pennant Wednesday night, the first in the 44-year history of the franchise, because Oswalt was perhaps the only person in the stadium capable of taking the shock of Pujols's already legendary home run and funneling it into his own performance. His seven innings of masterful work lifted the Astros to a 5-1 victory over the Cardinals in Game 6 of the NL Championship Series, finally clinching a pennant that seemed ensured only two nights earlier, until Pujols hit the homer that threatened to linger in the minds of Houston fans for a century or more.
"We knew," Oswalt said on the field afterward, "that that one hit wasn't going to be a factor."
Oswalt was named the series MVP after his three-hit, one-run effort on Wednesday night because it was his second win of the series, because he allowed just two runs on eight hits in his 14 innings of work against Pujols and the Cardinals. It was an easy and fitting choice, because the Astros are built on pitching, and the upcoming World Series against the Chicago White Sox matches the best staffs in baseball.
"I'm so proud of that kid," seven-time Cy Young winner Roger Clemens said, his impending start in Game 7 now put off until the World Series. "He's somebody who's going to be around this league for a long time, who's going to be doing this for a long time."
The Astros' victory guarantees a World Series that will produce a champion that hasn't won in generations, and in Houston's case, not at all. The White Sox, who will host the first game Saturday, last won a championship in 1917, and the Astros have never even played for the title. Between them, the two franchises entered this year having combined to play more than 130 seasons without a World Series victory.
Now, though, this unlikely bunch of Astros will play for the championship. In May, they stood at 15-30, yet recovered to take the NL's wild-card playoff berth on the final day of the regular season. Wednesday, they overcame perhaps even more difficult circumstances, dismissing the sting of Pujols's homer -- which came off Houston closer Brad Lidge with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 5, which came after the Astros had been one strike away from the pennant, which turned a 4-2 Houston lead into a 5-4 Cardinals' win. They handed the ball to Oswalt, who shrugged off the 52,438 red-clad fans, each one of them wanting to push this thing to a seventh game, to extend the life of Busch Stadium, which is to be demolished over the winter, at least one more night.
"The city, the fans," Cardinals starter Mark Mulder said, "they deserved better."
In the Astros' clubhouse, with the champagne flowing, the thoughts were exactly the same, but for the people back in their own city, the folks who thought they would witness the pennant clincher in Game 5.
"This team has been in Houston for 43 years, and been on the edge for 43 years," Astros owner Drayton McLane said. "I think the more difficult it gets, the better they play."
They played as well as anyone could expect Wednesday night. When Pujols came to the plate in the bottom of the first, the entire crowd stood long before he reached the batter's box, the roar was thunderous, and the camera flashes popped throughout the stadium, as if he could recreate the moment right then, right there.
"Nobody on this team," Lidge said, "thought just because of what happened in Game 5, we weren't going to win."
So with a runner on first, Oswalt made sure the Cardinals knew, too. He struck out Pujols on three pitches, the start of an 0-for-4 night in which the man many believe is the most fearsome hitter in the game couldn't hit the ball out of the infield. Oswalt didn't allow a hit in the first four innings, and his sum total for the evening: Yadier Molina's single in the fifth, Larry Walker's two-out double in the sixth and Abraham Nunez's two-out single in the seventh.
"I don't think pitching in any situation intimidates him," Astros catcher Brad Ausmus said. Afterward, when he was soaked with champagne, someone asked Oswalt what his emotions were, and second baseman Craig Biggio, sitting nearby, said quickly, "He doesn't have any emotions."
The only potentially hairy point came in the fifth, when the Cardinals had runners on first and second and Nunez attempted to bunt them over. Oswalt fielded the bunt, but stumbled. He threw to second from his knees and shortstop Adam Everett flailed in his attempt to put a tag on Molina. Umpire Greg Gibson called Molina out, but replays showed Everett missed the tag. The call changed the game. Instead of having the bases loaded with no one out, the Cardinals were left with runners on first and third and one out. The threat of a big inning ended, and Oswalt allowed only a sacrifice fly that cut the Astros' lead to 3-1.
From there, there seemed little doubt. Houston added single runs in the sixth and seventh, and relievers Chad Qualls and Dan Wheeler finished the game for Oswalt. And when Wheeler got Molina to fly softly to right in the ninth, it seemed all that remained was the celebration, which happened at midfield.
Except, being St. Louis, there was more. The crowd, well aware it was the last game at Busch, remained in the stands, and even warmly cheered the Astros. Long after the Astros had retreated to their clubhouse, the Cardinals emerged from theirs, thanking the fans, waving and bowing.
"I think we paid the ballpark back," Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa said, "and the fans back."
Really, though, it was the fans of Houston who were paid back, paid back for all the angst and heartache they had suffered not only since Monday night, but over the 43 previous seasons.