- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 18, 2005

HOUSTON — Everything was in place. Minute Maid Park was ready to erupt. And the Houston Astros, one out from clinching the first pennant in the franchise’s 44-year history, were ready to join in the celebration.

Until Albert Pujols decided to crash the party with one of the most explosive blasts in baseball history.

With his team on the verge of elimination in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, Pujols sent a hanging slider from Brad Lidge caroming off the girders high above the left-field fence and sent this series back to St. Louis.

Pujols’ three-run homer, a no-doubter off one of the game’s most-dominant closers, gave the Cardinals a stunning 5-4 victory last night and left every one of the 43,470 who witnessed it speechless.

Instead of an Astros coronation by Lance Berkman — who likewise clubbed a three-run homer in the seventh — there was a dramatic display of Cardinals resolve. Instead of losing this series in frustrating fashion, St. Louis heads home for Game 6 tomorrow down 3-2 but with Houston suddenly doubting itself.

“It’s terrible,” Astros manger Phil Garner said. “You’re high as a kite one minute. … But you have to play every out. We failed to play every out tonight. We just didn’t do it.”

Lidge entered in the ninth with his team up 4-2 and struck out the first two batters. But he surrendered a two-out single to David Eckstein and then walked Jim Edmonds on five pitches. Up came Pujols, a perennial NL MVP candidate who immediately thrust himself into postseason lore by absolutely crushing Lidge’s 0-1 offering.

“I’m a big believer that it’s not over until you make 27 outs,” Pujols said. “I know I was the fifth guy coming up in the inning. Hopefully, I’d be the last guy to make an out — that’s the attitude I was taking.”

Jason Isringhausen retired the side in the bottom of the inning to wrap up this October thriller and leave the American League champion Chicago White Sox waiting at least two more days to find out who they’ll be facing in the World Series.

“We’ll never give up,” St. Louis ace Chris Carpenter said. “And it showed tonight.”

It didn’t look like things were headed that way, not after Berkman took Carpenter the opposite way in the bottom of the seventh to give the Astros a seemingly safe lead.

With Craig Biggio (who reached on an error) and Chris Burke (who singled) on the corners, Berkman reached out to tag Carpenter’s fastball into the Crawford Boxes down the left-field line. He danced around the bases in glee, and the Astros prepared to kick off a glorious celebration.

That celebration will be put on hold for a while, at least until Game 6 tomorrow at Busch Stadium, which gets to be host for at least one more game before it is demolished. St. Louis will send left-hander Mark Mulder to the mound against Houston 20-game winner Roy Oswalt.

There was an air inside Minute Maid Park last night not found in the previous games of this series. The sellout crowd started packing the park more than two hours before game time, filled with the kind of anticipation that only comes with a potential pennant clincher.

The fans knew what was at stake here. By the time Andy Pettitte threw his first pitch to Eckstein, the masses were practically worn out from so much pregame cheering.

Once everyone settled in, though, it became obvious that a long, drawn-out night was in store. The two clubs combined to put 12 men on base in the first three innings alone, but not until Biggio lofted a two-out, broken-bat single in the second did either team score.

Clutch hits have come at a serious premium during this series, so when Pettitte struck out both Pujols and Reggie Sanders with two on in the third, it looked like the Astros might escape yet another jam. But like Biggio the inning before, Mark Grudzielanek managed to bloop a two-out, broken-bat single to right, this one bringing home two runs to give St. Louis a 2-1 lead.

With that advantage, slim as it was, at his disposal, Carpenter dug in and went to work. The right-hander was hardly dominating— he was perpetually pitching out of the stretch — but he came through when he had to. Besides Biggio’s second-inning single, no Houston hitter could drive in a run.

Carpenter got better as the night wore on. He struck out Burke, Morgan Ensberg and Mike Lamb in the fifth and retired the side in the sixth but finally wilted in the seventh.

Pettitte, too, was sharper in the middle innings, keeping the Cardinals from adding to their lead before departing with one out in the seventh to a standing ovation.

Garner handed the game over to his talented bullpen, unaware of the disaster that awaited.

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