Lessons of the past

Astros: 'Last year is history'

ST. LOUIS -- Look all you want for that thousand-yard stare or deer-in-the-headlights expression, but you won't find either in the faces of the Houston Astros.

They endured a crushing defeat in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, and for the second year in a row they find themselves back at Busch Stadium with a 3-2 lead and needing only one victory. For the Astros, that's about the only similarity between 2004 and 2005.

A year ago, the Astros returned to the River City following a huge walk-off win in Game 5, courtesy of a Jeff Kent home run. This time they endured the other end of the spectrum in the form of a three-run homer by Albert Pujols with two outs in the ninth after the Astros were one strike away from reaching the World Series.

"Last year is history; this is a completely different situation," said Astros right-hander Roy Oswalt, who will start Game 6 against Cardinals left-hander Mark Mulder. "We just need one win, and we proved we could win [at Busch Stadium] already in this series. We just need to buckle down, play hard and get it done."

The jubilation the team felt when Kent won Game 5 last year didn't mean anything when the Astros went north and lost two in St. Louis. The pressure is still on the Cardinals, who must win out or their season is over.

"The bottom line is, we're still ahead," third baseman Morgan Ensberg said. "We haven't been eliminated. This [Game 5] was a tough loss, but it's not the end."

Arguably the only thing that has changed in this series since the start of the previous game is the perception. Because of the manner in which the Astros lost -- or the Cardinals won, depending on your point of view -- the theory that the momentum has swung to St. Louis because of the dramatic Game 5 win and because the series returns to St. Louis is a logical assumption.

The facts, however, haven't changed much. The Astros still need just one more win and have Oswalt and Roger Clemens lined up should the series go the distance.

Astros manager Phil Garner made a wise move in not having a mandatory workout on the off-day. A clean break from Monday's meltdown can only help the Astros put it behind them more easily and come out fresh and ready to go on Wednesday.

With the way Game 5 ended, it is also easy to overlook what has gone right for the Astros in the first five games and how that might impact the remainder of the series.

Garner has used seven different relievers for a combined 13 innings in the first five games. Of the seven, six have not allowed a run. The only Houston reliever the Cardinals have scored against in the NLCS is closer Brad Lidge (four earned runs in five innings).

The Astros built a 3-1 lead in the series despite a single RBI between Ensberg and Lance Berkman. Those two have since started to heat up. Berkman came through with a big three-run homer in Game 5 and is hitting .353 in the series. Ensberg snapped an 0-for-8 string by going 3-for-7 with a sacrifice fly in his past two games.

The Houston staff has done an outstanding job against the bulk of the Cardinals' lineup. Not counting Pujols, the first six batters in the Cardinals' lineup are hitting .207 (17-for-82). The Cardinals' team batting average for the series is .223 and the on-base percentage is just .290.

St. Louis has scored a total of 15 runs in the series, compared with 17 for the Astros.

"The pitching has been great on both sides," Berkman said. "It's what you expect in the playoffs. When you have a close series like this, it usually comes down to who gets the clutch hits."

To lose the series, the Astros would have to drop three in a row in games started by Andy Pettitte, Oswalt and Clemens. That has happened only twice in the past two seasons.

The most recent was in mid-August, when Pettitte was beaten by Greg Maddux of the Cubs, Oswalt lost a 4-2 decision to Carlos Zambrano and Clemens was defeated, 4-2, by Tomo Ohka and Milwaukee.

The other time was at Busch Stadium following the All-Star break. The Astros lost 4-3 in 13 innings on July 15, though Pettitte was not involved in the decision. Jason Marquis beat Oswalt, 4-2, on July 16, and Chris Carpenter went the distance in a 3-0 win over Clemens and the Astros on July 17.

At least this time the Astros won't have to face Carpenter.

"He's not the only great pitcher on that staff," Berkman said. "But we've got great pitching, too. We've got Roy ready to go, and he's been outstanding all year long. It's still up to us to get this done."

Just as it was last year. Maybe this time will be different.

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