Astros find themselves in familiar spot

Astros find themselves in familiar spot

ST. LOUIS -- They were so close, so very close. A few inches here or there, and maybe the Houston Astros might have come away with the kind of victory that would have propelled them to their first World Series.

Had they beaten St. Louis Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter instead of dropping a 5-3 decision at Busch Stadium in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series on Wednesday night, the Astros would have taken command of this best-of-seven series.

Instead, the Astros are going to have to come from behind if they're going to get past the Cardinals.

At least that's a familiar position for Houston. Don't forget this is a team that came back from a 15-30 record and last place to win the NL Wild Card and overcame a 6-1 eighth-inning deficit in Game 4 to clinch the NL Division Series.

"We wouldn't have it any other way, that's the way it's been all year," Astros reliever Russ Springer said. "If we're going to go to the next round, we've got to scratch for it just like we've scratched all year. And we've got a group of guys here that obviously have shown they've got what it takes to scratch it out when our backs are against the wall."

This was a night when the ball just didn't bounce Houston's way.

First, there was Roy Oswalt's batting-practice line drive that hit starter Andy Pettitte in the knee. The left-hander refused to use that as an excuse, but the swelling in his knee made it obvious that this was not the same pitcher that went 4-0 with a 1.86 ERA in September, then beat Atlanta in Game 1 of the National League Division Series.

There were squandered opportunities, with the biggest coming in the third inning when Lance Berkman hit a first-pitch bullet after the Astros had loaded the bases with one out against Carpenter, but St. Louis second baseman Mark Grudzielanek made a nice grab to start a 4-6-3 double play.

"We had [Carpenter] on the ropes," Astros manager Phil Garner said. "Berkman hits the ball about as good as you could hit it, and Mark makes a nice play, a nice double play and got out of a jam. We had them on the ropes in the fourth inning and didn't get anything out of it. That was the ballgame."

In the fourth, the Astros had runners on first and third but didn't score as St. Louis third baseman Abraham Nunez threw out his Houston counterpart, Morgan Ensberg, at the plate. The Astros missed a chance at another run when Reggie Sanders leapt above the left-field wall to rob Mike Lamb in the sixth.

"[St. Louis manager] Tony [LaRussa]'s got a magic wand over there," Berkman said. "He knows where you're going to hit it ahead of time and he's got someone standing in front of it. In the playoffs, there's such a small margin for error. We came so close to breaking through a few times, but they made the plays."

Houston stranded five runners in scoring position, a cardinal sin against a pitcher of Carpenter's caliber.

"The guy won 21 games for a reason," Astros shortstop Adam Everett said. "He was pretty good, he had a good sinker, fastball and curveball and he threw them all for strikes and I think that was the key. We got down five runs, but we didn't give up. We never give up, and that's something this team has done all year."

"We had some pretty good at-bats off [Carpenter]," Astros second baseman Craig Biggio said. "We just couldn't find any holes. That's the way it goes sometimes. We were able to get some guys on but weren't able to get them in early. We did some little things right, we got some guys on, we got some walks. We take it one batter at a time and everybody tries to stay within their own limitations. We did that, we just didn't get the big hit to get them in."

Despite the run of buzzard's luck, the Astros still managed to bring the tying run to the plate in the ninth inning thanks to rookie Chris Burke's heroics.

The NLDS Game 4 hero contributed a two-run, pinch-hit homer in the seventh, meaning he has driven in three of the four runs the Astros have scored in their last 19 postseason innings. Burke has homered on each of his last two swings of the bat.

All things considered, the Astros took several positives out of the loss. Carpenter wasn't as dominating as he had been in previous starts against Houston, and the offense showed sparks as it did in scoring 25 runs in four games against the Braves.

"We kind of put up a fight at the end, we just came up short," Springer said. "We know we belong on the same field with these guys, and I think they know it."

The Astros also have a 20-game winner of their own ready to go in Game 2 on Thursday night, right-hander Roy Oswalt.

"If we can get out of here with a split, we'll be in pretty good shape," Berkman said.

Jim Molony is a writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.