Sunday, October 16, 2005

HOUSTON — They cheered from the moment they entered the ballpark. They cheered when Roger Clemens took the mound, when Mike Lamb homered in the fourth, when Jason Lane drove in the go-ahead run in the sixth and moments later when substitute third baseman Hector Luna’s throw to the plate sailed to the backstop.

And though they held their breath during a tense ninth inning, once Brad Lidge recorded the final out of the Houston Astros’ 4-3 win over the St. Louis Cardinals, the crowd of 42,823 — including a former president of the United States — practically blew the roof right off Minute Maid Park.

Welcome to the Lone Star State, where an entire population born and bred on football has come down with a serious case of pennant fever. And for good reason: Thanks to yesterday’s Game3 victory, the hometown Astros are now halfway to capturing the first National League Championship Series title in franchise history.

“This time of year is a lot of fun,” said Clemens, the 43-year-old Houston native who pitched six solid innings to earn the win in his 32nd postseason start. “It’s a lot of fun to have everything be so meaningful. It makes it worth it.”

Having now beaten the banged-up Cardinals twice in a row, Houston holds a 2-1 advantage in this series and has a chance to close it out without ever returning to St. Louis.

“We’re not going to take that for granted,” manager Phil Garner said. “I can’t tell you how much we respect their team.”

But to which team is Garner referring: the formerly invincible Cardinals who pounded opponents into submission with a veteran-laden roster or the current stripped-down version that might have to field a patchwork lineup today for Game4?

It’s amazing how quick St. Louis’ downfall has been. After looking superior through a first-round sweep of San Diego and a Game1 victory over Houston on Wednesday, manager Tony La Russa’s team looks like it’s coming apart.

Left fielder Reggie Sanders, still feeling the effects of his nasty tumble in Game2, was out of the lineup yesterday. Right fielder Larry Walker played, but with a bum knee he’s a shadow of himself and is now 1-for-19 during the playoffs.

And to the list of walking wounded the Cardinals now can add third baseman Abraham Nunez, who had to be helped off the field in the sixth inning after having his left knee taken out by Lane’s hard slide.

Though La Russa said Nunez — originally a backup himself until star third baseman Scott Rolen suffered a season-ending shoulder injury — might be able to play today, the fact remains that the 100-win Cardinals are in real trouble.

“Our lineup’s been like that all year,” center fielder Jim Edmonds said. “We’ve been playing without three or four regulars for months.”

Added pitcher Matt Morris, yesterday’s loser: “The only thing we can do is forget about today and prepare for tomorrow.”

If the Astros and their fans are as jacked up as they were yesterday, the Cardinals will have a tough time rebounding. The bandbox that is Minute Maid Park has become one of baseball’s most intimidating venues for opponents.

With the roof closed despite gorgeous weather outside, there’s no place for the crowd’s roar to escape. So the sellout gathering, including former President George H.W. Bush and wife Barbara in the front row, made the place sound like an airport hangar for three hours straight.

They applauded Clemens’ every move, from his first pitch to David Eckstein in the first to his 97th pitch to Nunez in the sixth. The seven-time Cy Young Award winner wasn’t totally in control — he walked two, struck out just one and allowed the Cardinals to come back from a 2-0 deficit — but he was good enough to win.

“It’s a constant battle,” Clemens said. “I’m going to try to find a weakness if I can, and if not, just grind them and make them earn everything they are going to get.”

Houston’s hitters came to their pitcher’s rescue, with Lamb sending a two-run homer into the tantalizing Crawford Boxes down the left-field line in the fourth and the bottom of the order producing two more runs in the sixth.

It was during that second rally that the game was decided. Lamb led off with a double off Morris, then scored easily on Lane’s single up the middle. Brad Ausmus followed with a single to right, and that’s when Lane took out Nunez at third.

La Russa was forced to make a double switch, bringing in Brad Thompson to pitch and the seldom-used Luna to play third, and the Astros seized the opportunity. Adam Everett, after fouling off a suicide squeeze attempt, hit a hard chopper down the third-base line. Luna tried to make a difficult throw to the plate and wound up air mailing the ball high and wide, allowing Houston’s fourth run to score.

“He gets the ball. There’s the runner, there’s the catcher,” La Russa said. “I mean, he had nowhere to throw it.”

The insurance run proved vital in the end, because St. Louis managed to score its first run off Lidge in nearly 2 years on John Mabry’s RBI double in the ninth. That cut the lead to 4-3, but Lidge responded by getting Eckstein to fly out to end the game, send the crowd into a frenzy and send an Astros team that once was 15 games under .500 one step closer to its first NL pennant.

“This is one of the most resilient teams I’ve ever been on,” Lamb said. “Whether we get shut out, whether we lose, whether we win, this team … it doesn’t faze them.”

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