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Astros feeling good after earning split

Astros feeling good after earning split

ST. LOUIS -- They don't have Carlos Beltran or Jeff Kent, but these Houston Astros have something the Beltran-led Astros of the 2004 playoffs didn't have: a victory at Busch Stadium and a chance to close out the National League Championship Series at home.

These Astros are going home even in the NLCS after Roy Oswalt and Brad Lidge combined to hold St. Louis to a run on six hits as Houston took Game 2 of the series, 4-1, on Thursday night.

"It's huge," shortstop Adam Everett said. "After what happened [in Game 1], to go home with a split, this is huge. This was a big win for us confidence-wise, in terms of the series, any way you want to look at it."

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For the moment, the Houston situation looks good, though it remains to be seen if this is as good as it gets.

The win puts the Astros in a much better position than they were a year ago. This time last year, Houston was in an 0-2 hole. They went on to sweep the Cardinals three straight at Minute Maid Park before losing Game 6 and Game 7 in St. Louis.

Now that they have proven they can win a playoff game at Busch Stadium, the Astros can afford to exhale a little bit.

Maybe things will be different this time.

Should they hold serve at Minute Maid this time -- not impossible considering this team had the second-best home record in baseball this season -- the Astros wouldn't have to come back to Busch.

"It definitely means a lot to split here," Lidge said. "We faced two great starting pitchers and to get a split here is fantastic. This is a different team than we were last year. There's a lot of the same guys, but really it's a different team, a really close-knit bunch, and we've really come together here since about midway through the season."

The Astros have played their way into this position by doing something they didn't do here last fall. Namely, get outstanding starting pitching and limit the Cardinals' big innings.

The offense, though scoring a modest seven runs in two games, shook off the problems of Game 1 and resumed doing the things that propelled the team into the playoffs such as getting the clutch hits, taking advantage of Cardinals mistakes and playing solid defense.

It all started with Oswalt, who had one of the finest performances of his career, which is saying something considering the right-hander has won 80-plus games over the last five seasons. He gave up five hits in seven innings and lost his shutout on a solo homer by Albert Pujols in the sixth. Oswalt walked three and struck out six.

"He was outstanding," Everett said. "Every pitch he threw just seemed like it had a little bit extra. His curveball was great, his slider and his fastball [were] tremendous tonight."

Who needs Beltran when you have Chris Burke?

The rookie NLDS hero contributed a triple, an RBI single and scored two runs. In his first five at-bats in this series, Burke was only a double shy of a cycle.

The pattern Thursday night was familiar in other ways for Houston. The top third of the order -- Craig Biggio, Willy Taveras and Lance Berkman -- were a combined 6-for-14. Burke, Everett and Brad Ausmus contributed a combined two RBIs and three runs scored.

Other than Pujols' homer, Oswalt stymied the Cardinals' big guns, the Astros played solid defense and Lidge was given the lead in the eighth inning. For St. Louis, that usually means lights out. Lidge, who has held the Cardinals to an .059 batting average (5-for-84), has not given up a run to St. Louis since the 2003 season.

"The way we started out and the way we finished is like two different teams," Everett said. "We have a lot of confidence in ourselves and we're not putting all the pressure on one player, which helps."

The Astros packed up for home with another encouraging thought in that seven-time Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens would be pitching Game 3 on Saturday at Minute Maid Park. If the old cliche about momentum being as good as your next game's starting pitcher is true, the Astros are in good hands.

"We're very happy that we've got the split going back home and we have confidence in our ballpark and our fans," Biggio said. "You hear how loud it is here and it's just as loud at Minute Maid."

And if the series comes back here, the Astros at least will have Oswalt ready to go again.

"This was big for our confidence," Berkman said. "That doesn't mean we're going to sweep them at home. This is going to be a long series."

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

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