The Astros lead the best-of-seven NLCS, 3-1, and can clinch a trip to the Fall Classic with a win Monday night in Game 5 at Minute Maid Park.
Houston fans, you might want to try to line up for tickets now.
No disrespect intended to the reeling Cardinals, but it would take a collapse on a scale similar to last year's ALCS to keep the Astros out of the World Series after what happened Sunday at Minute Maid Park.
In a game the Cardinals desperately needed to win, the Astros outpitched, outhit and outplayed the NL Central Division champs in a tight contest that wasn't decided until Houston snuffed out a ninth-inning rally with an improbable double play that even the Astros doubted they could turn.
When Eric Bruntlett and Adam Everett teamed up for the game-ending 4-6-3 double play on a slow grounder off the bat of John Mabry, the Astros had parlayed their October magic into one more win and the cusp of the World Series.
"When that ball left [Mabry's] bat, I thought, 'No way we turn that double play,'" Astros third baseman Morgan Ensberg said. "I didn't think it was hit hard enough, but Eric made a quick throw and Adam turned it about as quick as you'll ever see. It was an amazing play, really."
Bruntlett was in because Astros manager Phil Garner once again pushed all the right buttons. Garner had sent Bruntlett in for Craig Biggio in the eighth after Houston has scored the go-ahead run in the seventh. That run had come home in the person of speedster Willy Taveras, whom Garner had sent in to run for Orlando Palmeiro.
Houston's pitching staff continued to stifle St. Louis, holding the Cards to a run on five hits.
Everything is clicking for the Astros right now. They are rolling, and the mood in the clubhouse after winning their seventh consecutive home postseason game was one of relief and happiness, not cockiness or overconfidence. The respect they have for the Cardinals will not allow the Astros to write off their opponents.
"I think we're all a little shocked right now the way that game just ended," Astros infielder/outfielder Mike Lamb said. "It's a great feeling to be up 3-1 on the defending National League champions, but we've still got a long way to go."
As Biggio quickly pointed out: "We were one win away [from the World Series] last year with two chances to get it done and we didn't, so nobody is celebrating.
"Don't get me wrong, I'm excited about it, but that team over there isn't going to go away. They never quit and they've got Chris Carpenter going [in Game 5], so this thing isn't over by any stretch of the imagination. We've got a lot of work to do."
Last year, Houston's advantage was 3-2 with two games to go on the road. This time, they have three shots, and the first one is at home.
Last year, the Astros had Pete Munro going in Game 6. This time, they've got Andy Pettitte in Game 5, and if the series goes back to St. Louis, Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens are ready to take their respective turns.
The Cardinals' side of the equation is not as formidable as it was a year ago or even earlier this season. The Cards are banged up, and two players who burned Houston last fall -- Scott Rolen and Edgar Renteria -- won't be this time. St. Louis' offense has sputtered in this series, while Houston's has been getting the job done.
The Cardinals face a giant task against a hot team that has three of the best pitchers in baseball ready to throw at them. Add in the huge disappointment that must come with not converting what might have been a momentum-turning win had they been able to rally against Houston closer Brad Lidge, and it is hard to picture the Cards climbing out of this hole.
"That was really a more important game for us than it was for them, and it got away from us," St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said.
|The Astros are the 11th team since the seven-game NLCS format began in 1985 to take a 3-1 lead. Eight of the previous 10 advanced to the World Series.|
Team leading 3-1
|1989||San Francisco||Chicago||Won, 4-1|
|1996||St. Louis||Atlanta||Lost, 4-3|
|1998||San Diego||Atlanta||Won, 4-2|
|1999||Atlanta||New York||Won, 4-2|
|2000||New York||St. Louis||Won, 4-1|
|2002||San Francisco||St. Louis||Won, 4-1|
The Astros are well aware of the history. They couldn't get that fourth NLCS win last year. Since 1985, 10 teams held a 3-1 lead in the NLCS and eight of those reached the World Series. The only two teams to lose the NLCS after leading 3-1 were the 1996 Cardinals and the 2003 Cubs.
"I was with the Cubs [in 2003], when we had [Mark] Prior, [Carlos] Zambrano, guys like that going back-to-back-to-back, and we lost three games," Cardinals second baseman Mark Grudzielanek said. "We were like 'Oh, my God.' Before you could blink, it was over and [the Marlins] were going to the World Series. So things can happen. With this team, we can rally three off in a heartbeat. We've just got to take them one at a time."
After what happened last year and considering their road struggles this season, the Astros would just as soon not go back to Busch Stadium. Understandably, they will go all out to try and clinch the series on Monday.
"You don't want to take it back to St. Louis," Astros reliever Chad Qualls said. "We've been given the opportunity to nail it down [Monday], and that's what our goal is going to be. We've got our work cut out for us."
"We're in a very good position, but we haven't won anything yet," Lamb said. "There's three more games to win one. I mean, I hate to look at it like that, because it kind of makes it lackadaisical for [Monday night] and we need to come out and take care of business. We've got momentum, we're at home, the place is loud and the fans are behind us."
Houston has never been more ready.
Time for the Astros to just do it.