- The Washington Times - Friday, October 14, 2005

ST. LOUIS — Not to say it couldn’t be done, because it has happened a few times before, but the last thing the Houston Astros needed was to put themselves in a 2-0 hole in the National League Championship Series.

They faced such a dilemma last season against the same St. Louis Cardinals. And though they extended the series to seven games, they ultimately were forced to watch their division rivals celebrate a pennant-clinching victory right before their eyes.

So clearly the pressure was on the Astros’ Roy Oswalt when he took the mound last night at Busch Stadium for Game2, with his team having already dropped Wednesday’s opener and desperately needing to draw even before the series shifts to Houston.

Pitching on that grand stage, Oswalt showed the world just why he’s won more games during the last two seasons than any pitcher in baseball. The slender right-hander doled out seven sterling innings, and his teammates manufactured enough offense to pull out a 4-1 victory before a disappointed crowd of 52,358.

“Our club’s unusual,” said manager Phil Garner, whose Astros dealt the Cardinals their first loss in five postseason games. “Things that might knock other teams down don’t seem to do that to us.”

It helps when you’ve got a pitcher like Oswalt at the top of his game. Houston’s back-to-back 20-game winner, something neither Roger Clemens nor Andy Pettitte can claim to have accomplished with the Astros, mowed his way through the Cardinals’ lineup and out-dueled a much-shakier Mark Mulder.

Oswalt departed in the eighth, his teammates having just supplied him with a three-run cushion, and then rejoiced as closer Brad Lidge tossed two scoreless innings to earn the save and send the clubs south to Houston where Clemens starts Game3.

“What you saw tonight is not unusual for Roy,” Garner said. “This is the big stage, about as big as it gets. And you know how much trouble we’ve had in this ballpark. But he stepped up tonight and dominated. Roy did a super job for us.”

The Cardinals may have one of the game’s most-feared lineups, but they were reduced to roadkill by the 185-pound Oswalt, who defies his slight build by hurling a baseball up to 97mph and then changes things up with a nasty, 88-mph slider.

Really, the only St. Louis hitter to get to him was Albert Pujols, who connected for a 438-foot solo homer in the sixth. Then again, who hasn’t been taken deep by the perennial MVP candidate? It’s almost like a badge of honor, and when it comes without anyone on base, it’s not as damaging.

It was in clutch situations that Oswalt shone brightest last night. In both the fifth and seventh innings, the Cardinals put men on first and second with two out and Jim Edmonds coming to the plate. And in both instances, Oswalt escaped.

He and Edmonds battled in a classic at-bat in the fifth, finally striking out the veteran center fielder on a beautiful, full-count slider on the inside corner. Oswalt needed just one pitch to get Edmonds in the seventh, inducing a harmless grounder to first to quash that rally and leave St. Louis trailing 2-1.

“With Edmonds up, Pujols on deck and two men out, you have to get it done,” Oswalt said. “I was pretty pumped up because of the way the night was going.”

That was in stark comparison to Mulder, who allowed only two runs (one earned) over seven innings but seemed to be in trouble at nearly every turn.

Returning to pitch one week after getting struck in the left bicep by a line drive, Mulder labored through the first two innings, needing a strikeout and a double-play comebacker to get out of a two-on, no-out jam in the first. He got into trouble again in the second when Astros rookie Chris Burke tripled to right-center, but he figured to get out of it unscathed when he intentionally walked Brad Ausmus to bring the pitcher up with two outs.

All Mulder needed to do was blow three fastballs past Oswalt, but he started his counterpart off with a curveball for ball one, then appeared to confuse catcher Yadier Molina with an inside fastball on his next pitch. The ball careened off Molina’s glove and dribbled away for a run-scoring passed ball. Three pitches later, Mulder walked Oswalt, leaving the sellout crowd at Busch even more restless.

“That was really a tough break on the first one,” Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. “But I think overall he did a really good job.”

The bottom of the Houston order got to Mulder again in the fifth, with Ausmus roping a leadoff double to left-center. He moved to third on Oswalt’s sacrifice bunt, then scored easily on Craig Biggio’s grounder to an infield that was surprisingly playing back.

The Astros added a pair of insurance runs off reliever Julian Tavarez in the eighth, the second on an Adam Everett triple that resulted in St. Louis left fielder Reggie Sanders violently banging the back of his head on the warning track.

The Cardinals’ most-dangerous hitter for the last month or so, held without an RBI for the first time in 11 games, was helped off the field by a trainer and was later diagnosed with a sprained lower back.

“The doctor said the best way to describe it is a train wreck,” La Russa said. “It’s serious. He’s got some sore spots all over his body.”

Sanders’ availability for Game 3 tomorrow is uncertain, a potentially devastating blow to a St. Louis club that for the first time this postseason looks mortal.

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