- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 20, 2005

ST. LOUIS — No one knew how the Houston Astros would react once they stepped back on the field last night, less than 48 hours removed from one of the most crushing defeats in postseason history.

Conventional wisdom said there was no way the Astros could bounce back from their Game 5 loss at Minute Maid Park. Manager Phil Garner and his players insisted they would not be done in by Albert Pujols’ monumental home run off Brad Lidge, but it’s one thing to talk a good game. It’s quite another to play it.

Well, it’s time to give the Astros their due. They didn’t just brush aside the kind of adversity that would get to even the most accomplished of ballclubs, they swatted it like a pesky little gnat.

And because of it, they’re going to the World Series for the first time in franchise history.

Behind yet another dynamite pitching performance from Roy Oswalt, Houston won the pennant last night, beating the Cardinals 5-1 in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series and sending venerable Busch Stadium to its untimely demise.

“Houston, we have a series, and we love it!” Garner said inside a jubilant Astros clubhouse.

Houston’s joy came at the expense of the 52,438 red-clad fans who packed Busch for what proved to be its final ballgame. The place will be imploded in the coming months, having failed to house a World Series champion during its last 23 seasons of use.

“Did we give it our best shot? I think we did,” St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said. “That’s why I congratulate the Astros. But we got into this thing to win the World Series, and that’s why it’s disappointing.”

The final image of this stadium will be that of the resilient Astros mobbing each other in the middle of the diamond to celebrate the pennant they came within one out of winning two nights before.

At the center of it all was Oswalt, the diminutive right-hander who ultimately stood above everyone else in this series. Perhaps last night’s seven-inning, three-hit gem will thrust Oswalt into the well-earned company of teammates Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte as one of the game’s best. In 14 innings pitched this series, he allowed a total of two runs on eight hits.

“He never gave in,” Garner said. “And that set the tone for the whole ballgame.”

Somewhere in the dogpile, Oswalt was joined by Lidge, redeemed for his blown save in Game 5 with a berth in the World Series. The big closer wasn’t needed in this one, not with his team comfortably ahead four runs, but perhaps Houston’s clinching win will help Lidge exorcise his demons.

He’ll start anew this weekend in the World Series, opening Saturday night at U.S. Cellular Field, where the hometown Chicago White Sox will be seeking their first title since 1917.

Just a short drive down Interstate 55 last night, the Cardinals’ fans came out in full force, re-energized by the Game 5 comeback in Houston. But they were silenced early, recognizing that Oswalt was at the top of his game and might need only a couple of runs to clinch the pennant.

The Astros gave him those runs in the third, with some help from Mark Mulder, who both passed up what appeared to be a play at third on Oswalt’s sacrifice bunt and then uncorked a wild pitch allowing Brad Ausmus to score the night’s first run. Craig Biggio followed with an RBI single, and the Astros were in business.

“The biggest thing for me was, once we got that early lead, I knew I could go right at them,” Oswalt said.

They never let up. Jason Lane’s solo homer to left in the fourth made it 3-0, and one inning later, Mulder was unceremoniously yanked from the game by La Russa, having been outpitched by Oswalt for the second time in six days.

The Astros’ two-time 20-game winner was in control from the very start, blowing batters away with a 95-mph fastball. Through four innings, all the Cardinals managed was a Jim Edmonds walk and a David Eckstein hit-by-pitch.

Yadier Molina finally got to him for a single in the fifth, paving the way for the night’s moment of controversy. With runners on first and second, Abraham Nunez hit a comebacker that knocked Oswalt to his knees. The pitcher threw wildly to second base, forcing shortstop Adam Everett to make a diving catch while trying to tag Molina.

Second base umpire Greg Gibson ruled Molina out, and immediately the fans were enraged. Replays clearly showed Molina eluding the tag, but no arguments from the Cardinals or their fans were going to change Gibson’s mind.

St. Louis did make the most of a bad situation when pinch-hitter John Rodriguez lofted a sacrifice fly to score Mark Grudzielanek, but Oswalt reached back to strike out Eckstein looking to end the inning and preserve the Astros’ two-run lead.

“He just worked us over again,” La Russa said. “He pitched outstanding.”

Houston even got Oswalt his run back the next half-inning, with Everett dropping a beautiful squeeze bunt to score Chris Burke. The Astros now led 4-1 and, unlike two nights prior, this loose bunch wasn’t about to blow its latest shot at a pennant-clincher.

“There’s a reason the clubhouse was loose today,” Garner said. “When you’re [sending] Roy out there, you’ve got to feel good about your chances. The way he went about his business tonight gave us great confidence.”



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