- The Washington Times - Monday, October 17, 2005

HOUSTON — When tensions are high and the stakes are raised to these levels, postseason baseball games often are decided by a matter of inches.

There’s perhaps no better way to describe the Houston Astros’ 2-1 triumph yesterday over the St. Louis Cardinals in Game4 of the National League Championship Series. Rarely has a ballgame of this magnitude come down to so many moments where a single inch would have made all the difference in the world.

In the end, the Astros were just that much better, that much more composed — and yes, that much luckier — than the Cardinals. And because of it, Houston is now one win from the first World Series in franchise history, up 3-1 in the NLCS with a chance to win the pennant tonight at Minute Maid Park.

“It’s a good ballclub — they don’t give an inch,” said the Astros’ Phil Garner, the lone manager still around for the game’s wild finish. “I don’t know if it’s going our way; it just comes down to some pretty good playing. When it’s been called on them to step up and do something fantastic, they have.”

There were any number of fantastic plays during a frantic ninth inning yesterday, one that saw the Cardinals put runners on first and third with no outs against Houston closer Brad Lidge yet fail to score the tying run.

On the verge of blowing his first save in 13 career postseason games, Lidge somehow managed to coax his way out of the jam, thanks to some spectacular defense behind him. When Reggie Sanders hit a chopper to third, Morgan Ensberg fired a strike to nail Albert Pujols at the plate for out No.1.

Afterward, Pujols wondered aloud about his decision to break for the plate.

“Maybe if I had stayed at third, Ensberg would have thrown to first,” the St. Louis slugger said. “But it’s part of the game. You say, ‘Why do these things happen?’”

As Pujols lamented his aggressive baserunning, teammate Larry Walker made a bold decision himself. Upon rounding second on the grounder, Walker noticed that neither Lidge nor catcher Brad Ausmus was paying attention. And when Ausmus flipped the ball to his pitcher, Walker swiped third without ever drawing a throw.

So the Cardinals had the tying run on third once again, but the possibility of a game-ending double play looming with slow-footed John Mabry at the plate. Mabry, in the lineup only because St. Louis’ other third basemen are all injured, got behind in the count 0-2 and then tapped a roller toward just-inserted second baseman Eric Bruntlett.

Just about every one of the 43,010 in attendance had the same thought as Astros right fielder Jason Lane: “There’s no way we were going to turn two. It was going to be a tie game.”

Perhaps the only people in the building who believed the opposite were Bruntlett and shortstop Adam Everett. With Sanders barreling down on him, Everett made the turn and flung the ball to first.

“When I saw it was a good throw to second,” Garner said, “I thought, ‘Well, we might have a shot at a double play here.’”

Garner and everyone else held their breath as Mabry and the ball arrived at first base in unison. All eyes shifted to Larry Poncino, and the first-base umpire sent the Astros into a wild celebration by signaling Mabry out to end the game.

“Flat-out unbelievable,” Ensberg said.

Added Lane: “I don’t think there’s many guys that can turn that double play like that.”

Houston’s elation came amid St. Louis’ dejection.

“This game, there’s some real great things about it,” Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. “And there’s some things that absolutely stink.”

La Russa could only have been referring to the string of events to led to both his and center fielder Jim Edmonds’ ejections by plate umpire Phil Cuzzi, rare occurrences during the playoffs.

Both ejections were prompted by arguments over borderline pitches on the upper inside corner of the strike zone. La Russa’s came with one out in the bottom of the seventh, when Berkman drew a four-pitch walk off reliever Jason Marquis.

“I thought I threw some good pitches,” Marquis said. “But I can’t blame the umpire. … I don’t blame it on anybody but myself.”

La Russa, who had been upset over Cuzzi’s inconsistent strike zone all afternoon, sprang to the top step of the dugout and started yelling at the umpire. Cuzzi engaged him in conversation for a few moments but didn’t waste much time before giving the veteran manager the heave-ho.

La Russa’s ejection hardly ended the controversy over Cuzzi’s strike zone. With two outs in the top of the eighth, Edmonds was tossed after arguing a 3-1 called strike that was thrown in nearly the identical location as Berkman’s ball four.

The Cardinals were forced to send up So Taguchi to inherit Edmonds’ full count, and though Taguchi sent a deep drive to the wall, Willy Taveras (yet another late defensive replacement) made a sparkling catch running up the hill in center field and into the fence. A few more inches, and Taguchi’s blast might have tied the game and given St. Louis new life.

Instead, it’s the Cardinals who are suddenly on the brink of elimination and the Astros who look like this year’s team of destiny.

“No, no,” Garner insisted. “We make our own destiny.”

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