- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 19, 2005

ST. LOUIS — As he stepped into the batter’s box at Houston’s Minute Maid Park Monday night, his team’s season down to its last strike, St. Louis Cardinals shortstop David Eckstein made a mental note about the pitcher he was facing: Astros closer Brad Lidge.

“See the pitch,” Eckstein told himself, remembering a devastating slider Lidge struck him out on earlier this season, one he said he never saw.

So when Lidge reached back and fired his trademark slider, Eckstein was ready. The diminutive leadoff hitter put bat on ball and managed to squirt it just through the left side of the infield for a two-out single.

A few moments later, after teammate Jim Edmonds had drawn a five-pitch walk, Albert Pujols was at the plate. Again, the Cardinals’ season was down to its last out. And again, a mental note was made in the batter’s box.

“Don’t try to be a hero,” Pujols thought. “Don’t try to hit a three-run home run.”

One can only imagine what might have happened had Pujols actually tried to hit the ball out of the park. Perhaps it would have hit the roof at Minute Maid instead of merely bouncing off the glass window high above the left-field fence for one of the most gargantuan home runs in postseason history.

Twenty-four hours after the fact, the sport was still abuzz over Pujols’ blast, which propelled the Cardinals to a 5-4 win and altered the complexion of the National League Championship Series.

One pitch from reaching their first World Series, the Astros instead boarded a plane yesterday and returned to St. Louis for Game 6 tonight.

One pitch from seeing their season end in frustrating fashion, the Cardinals returned home with new life and a shot at redemption.

“Everybody would be lying if for one minute, one second you didn’t think, ‘All right, it looks like we’re going home,’ ” said St. Louis left-hander Mark Mulder, who faces Houston’s Roy Oswalt tonight. “Then you see [Pujols’ homer] going, and you almost don’t believe it, because it was just such a shock.”

To anyone who watched it in person or on television, the Cardinals’ ninth-inning rally was utterly shocking. You just don’t expect to see one of baseball’s best closers blow a potential pennant-clinching game in such devastating fashion.

But in hindsight, there were signs that such a dramatic turn of events was possible, perhaps even inevitable.

As good as Lidge had been, he was showing some signs of cracking. Though he earned the save in Houston’s Game 3 win, he did surrender his first run to the Cardinals in 291/3 innings and more than two years. Then in Game 4, he gave up back-to-back singles in the ninth to put himself in a first-and-third, no-out jam before escaping.

So by the time the ninth inning rolled around Monday, Lidge might have been starting to doubt himself, and the Cardinals might have been starting to feel good about their chances.

If nothing else, St. Louis’ hitters knew the book on Lidge by heart, having faced him 23 times the last two seasons alone, not to mention four straight games during this series.

“I think the best thing that worked to our advantage was that he had to come in the past four games,” Eckstein said. “When you have someone like that in a series like this, having guys seeing him every single day, I think that’s helped us out a lot. … Finally, we were able to take advantage of that.”

Pujols’ homer will be replayed over and over for decades, but it was Eckstein’s single and Edmonds’ subsequent walk that allowed the slugger to come to the plate at all.

“The thing that we needed to not do was to walk Edmonds,” Astros general manager Tim Purpura said. “That was the critical piece of that puzzle, obviously. Once that happened, there’s a lot of bad things that could happen. And a bad thing did happen.”

As Pujols’ circled the bases in celebration, Lidge hunched over on the mound. His name suddenly had been thrown into the mix with such notorious postseason goats as Donnie Moore, Byung-Hyun Kim and Mitch Williams.

Lidge displayed his resolve after the game, taking responsibility for the blown save while insisting he wouldn’t let it eat at him.

“I’m going to be frustrated for the rest of the night,” he said. “And then when I wake up tomorrow, I’ll be ready to go again.”

Lidge’s teammates have been at his side from the moment Pujols’ shot was sailing into the stratosphere. As the Astros’ team charter took off yesterday, someone aboard joked out-loud that the plane almost got hit by the ball.

There wasn’t one person on the flight that had lost faith in Houston’s lights-out closer.

“I’ve been asked by a lot of people today already what this will do to Brad Lidge,” Purpura said. “I don’t think it will do much. I think he’ll come right back and do what he’s done through his whole career. He’s a battler, a fighter.”

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