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GAME SIX, NCLS: Houston Astros 5, St. Louis Cardinals 1 (Starmen Snatch the Pennant Back in Six)

Maybe the Houston Astros have secured the point that this is supposed to be the decade in which baseball teams rich in extraterrestrial frustration are supposed to bury their curses, actual or alleged, at long enough last. If they have, the 2005 World Series is going to send the nation's Valium bill even higher percentage wise than mine was sent thanks to the 1986 Series.

Entrants to no World Series in the life of the franchise, the third of the first four expansion teams to get to the mountaintop, the Astros meet the Chicago White Sox, winners of no World Series since the Bolshevik Revolution, alumni of only two Series since. And already the Astros have a spiritual edge on the White Sox.

Never mind the Four Marksmen of the Apocalypse who shut down what proved to be a band of feeble Angels, the White Sox didn't have to overcome what precedent called the insurmountable shock. The 21st Century's first decade is becoming one of doing what you are not supposed to do to get to the mountaintop, of turning sacred cows into the one thing they are truly worth—steak.

Roy Oswalt must have hungered for the biggest sirloin he could slice Wednesday night. Already at one in the land of the giants with his back-to-back 20-win seasons, Oswalt merely started by making sure he had a full can of Raid to keep the human cockroach, David Eckstein, at his distance, and he continued by doing everything in his power to keep the St. Louis Cardinals from hitting more than four balls out of the infield.

In truth the Astros began such doings at just about the moment they fastened their seat belts on the team flight to St. Louis Tuesday. It turned out that catcher Brad Ausmus found the perfect way to shake off the Monday night shell shock: mischief. He slipped to the pilot's cabin and prevailed upon the pilot to make an in-flight announcement, something to the effect of takeoff clearance awaiting the passage of Albert Pujols's bomb through and out of the local airpsace.

Even Brad Lidge had to laugh.

Now wait a minute, fer Crissakes, as Casey Stengel would have said. Was Pujols not supposed to have pronounced the Astros' death sentence? Do teams arising from a strike away from wait till next year not go on, normally, to finish what they restart? Do teams upended from a strike away from the mountain top not, normally, take what is coming to them meekly enough?

So said precedent such as the 1985 Los Angeles Dodgers. They were an out away from the World Series when Tommy Lasorda in the top of the ninth decided he had nothing to lose letting Tom Niedenfeuer pitch to Jack Clark with first base open. The Dodgers had nothing left come the bottom of the ninth. Did they ever think about hunting Stengel's old backyard in nearby Glendale in search of the ball Clark hit over the 110 Freeway?

The California Angels got closer than the Dodgers a year later, a strike away from the World Series, when Donnie Moore sent Dave Henderson the same pitch the barely-known Seattle reject had been fouling off, a nasty, knee-high, away enough splitter. And this time Henderson sent it away enough over the left field fence. The Angels managed to tie it up again in the bottom of the ninth, and that bought them only the honor of Henderson in the top of the eleventh re-breaking the tie, this time for keeps, with a sacrifice fly off Moore. The Angels made for Fenway Park to play two listless games sending the Red Sox to their own one-strike-away calamity.

That was last century, this is current century, and if its first decade has been nothing else it has been the Age of Precedents Overthrown, not to mention the Age of Curses (Actual or Alleged) Overthrown.

Those formerly star-crossed Angels started it, plunging magnificently enough through the 2002 postseason and inflicting a little transdimensional shock en route, for a change. Now a near-forgotten, castaway utility man, cut from the sinking Mariners at mid-season, Scott Spiezio three years ago was the Angels' angel of mercy, five outs from a San Francisco Series triumph, when he fought Felix Rodriguez a seven-pitch mini-epic, Rodriguez threw him an eighth pitch low and in, and Spiezio hit it high and out into the right field seats. Two innings and three more runs later, "We'll see you tomorrow night!" One night later, Angels in the Promised Land.

And where were you when the Red Sox saw and raised . . . well, everyone else on the star-crossed street? Nobody is going to top the Idiots, standing one out away from losing the pennant in four straight, before the Swipe Heard 'Round The World launched the upending that dug a four-straight burial of the Empire Emeritus which telegraphed an anticlimactic four-game Series sweep.

But the Astros plan to have a lot of fun trying, and why should they not? Everyone but themselves knew it was carved in marble, with no amendment clause, that Pujols's monstrous 0-1, three-run shot off Lidge Monday night, the flight of which was interrupted (Brad Ausmus's Katzenjammer Kids act to the contrary) only by the glass-and-iron upper wall behind the Minute Maid Park home run train tracks, was the death blow, a two-game Busch Stadium burial an apparent formality.

Somehow, however, seeing Lidge stretching in the bullpen Wednesday night, while Dan Wheeler went out in a non-save situation to finish Oswalt's 5-1 jewel, flicking off Mark Grudzielanek's two-out line single over shortstop, no one believed Lidge would keep his in-flight laughter alive until that final out was turned. That out sailed off Yadier Molina's bat into Jason Lane's glove in right field, Willy Taveras over from center just in case and hugging Lane toward the infield party.

And somehow, too, it should have been obvious that there would be a few in-team competitions for mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the happiest of us all. Not even Roger Clemens dared suggest the Astros' first pennant meant more to anyone than ancient starmen Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell. But if they were handing out the hardware for the most ostentatious postseason champagne shampoo to date, Clemens would have won it in the proverbial walk, for the lather under which he doused soul brother Andy Pettitte and kid brother Roy.

Oswalt the Rabbit would just have to settle for winning the National League Championship Series' Most Valuable Player award. Seven innings of one run, three hit, six punchout, one walk pitching, shrinking your NLCS earned run average to 1.29 atop that almost-as-splendid second game, will do that for you. Biggio would just have to settle for helping instigate Wednesday night's mini-romp, slashing a line single to left to send home Adam Everett from third in the top of the third for the second Houston run. And St. Louis starter Mark Mulder would have to live with a major assist, letting one sail right behind Biggio's heels allowing Ausmus to scurry home and Everett to help himself to third, right before Biggio laid pipe on him.

An inning and an out later, Lane joined in the fun, when Mulder—destiny was to grant him a mere four and two thirds innings with three earned on six hits against him—laid up a belt-high slider and Lane laid it ten rows up the left field seats. Two innings later, after pinch hitter John Rodriguez sent home Grudzielanek with a sacrifice fly, the Astros might as well have said, "Don't even think about it," for the way Everett shoved home Chris Burke with a squeeze bunt, an inning before Morgan Ensberg finally checked in with his only hit of the night, a single up the pipe scoring Biggio for the fifth Astros run.

Not that their new home will be anything less than a creature of beauty, but the Cardinals hoped they might extend incumbent Busch Stadium's life three more games at minimum, sending the old girl off with one more World Series conquest after winning one more pennant in her storied enough garden.

And Tony LaRussa waved off the Redbirds' sundry obstructions, noting that those who stepped in when others had to step down acquitted themselves nicely enough to get here in the first place. "It wasn't a health problem," he said postgame, "it was an Astros problem . . . I think there's a strong segment of our support that marks your season with not even getting in the World Series but winning it, and with that group we failed. We've got to be more realistic in the organization. Did we give it our best shot? I think we did. That's why I congratulate the Astros. But we got into this thing to win the World Series, and this is a disappointment."

The Astros have reasons to feel good and tenuous at once for winning the pennant on the road. On the one hand, both pennants were secured in the road ballpark, and only two of the four division series winners advanced after winning the set at home. One of those was the Astros, however, and during the season the White Sox on the road won one less than the Astros at home, compared to the Astros on the road two games lesser than the White Sox at home.

And if the Astros have any more miracles to work, they are about to step into the arena where miracles mean the most. They can have yet another precedent to smash if they want one, courtesy of their fraternal National League expansion twins. The 1969 Mets opened on the road for the pennant and the Series, winning both at home. And after they dropped the first Series game on the road, the Mets swept the next four from a team of Baltimore Orioles that compares quite reasonably, on paper, to this year's White Sox. That would be one precedent the Astros should wish not to overcome but to equal. And raise, even.

—Jeff Kallman
Thursday, October 20


The World Series is coming, Chicago.

You know that. When you walk down those steaming October streets on the way to the greasy spoon, you God damn well know it. You talk of nothing else. When you eat kielbasa, when you eat cheeseburgers, when you eat that fifty dollar vegan dinner, that hundred dollar steak, suck on cigars or cigarettes or a joint before the party, you know about the White Sox. You knew it was coming, you did, you've got piles of scorecards and ticket stubs and your favorite player's had a great season, a great playoff series. You've read every article there is to read, and you know what? All this week, you'll read more. About Ozzie and the pitchers and beating the Angels and Red Sox and Indians and Twins. You'll read stuff until it comes out your ears and flows out your mouth to anyone who'll listen. And everyone will listen just as everyone will repeat what they read and heard and figured out all their own. You won't care a whiff.

Because the World Series is coming.

I wish I was there. Right now and with a ticket in my pocket, collar turned up to the Lake Michigan winds. With that ticket in my pocket and wondering about the game. Bring binoculars? Eat before hand? Peanuts, beer, a scorecard? Maybe I shouldn't waste my time, I'll want to see the game. I check my ticket against the map of the stadium. We're up there all right. One pal says bring the camera, the other gives you a look like you're insane. But I'll score it. Take pictures of the rowdies.

I would walk down Chicago's streets and think to myself of the coming championship, of the victories and the parades and the swarming in the field. Right now, it's still yours. There's no losses yet, just the promise of glory. The giant board blowing up, the fireworks, the sirens, the roar and the bite of a hot dog on a cold night. The swig of beer. The swig of something more potent.

Chicago, remember this dreamworld.

Remember last night's dinner, each conversation swollen with promise. The air is perfect now in Chicago, because it's Chicago's. That traffic that's so damned awful… it's a badge, isn't it? God damn right! The traffic is something to be proud of, the dog shit on the streets, Cabrini Green, new Comiskey. Especially new Comiskey.

You hope they bring on Houston just so you can show off your ugly stadium. Because it's yours Goddamnit, its yours. This is Chicago and these are the White Sox and we're in the World Series. So fuck you, whoever you are. We beat the tar out of everyone to get here. This is a concrete box, but its ours.

Algren said it was "An October sort of city, even in spring." Now it's an October sort of city when it's supposed to be. By Saturday, the fight will begin. You'll remember, always, where you were when so-n-so hit his homer, when blast-it-all struck out to go down by a couple, when they win it all. When they lose.

When they lose, the wound will heal, eventually. When the win, the ennui comes back, around December. You'll go back to work, you'll have to wash that WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONS shirt and it will never look or feel the same way again. The team will dissolve, the harmony amongst your fellow citizen will dissolve. The Southside will be the Southside and Comiskey Comiskey, and if they don't win again…

The daily grind will begin to grind again.

Not now, though. Now, as the sunlight gets thinner, the days grow shorter, we anticipate when the nights will be broken by arclamps, hiding the stars for baseball. When what we think we want more than anything still has the power to move us. When every man, woman, and child who wants it can be a White Sox, and this is when the White Sox are invincible, and we beat back life for a little while to soak in the accidentaly beauty and wonder of this sport. When it becomes us, and we become it. When the cliches become true, and truth is in the calculus of a silly game.

Chicago: you're lucky. I wish I was you.

—Peter Schilling Jr.
Wednesday, October 19

"OH, MY GOD . . . "

NLCS GAME FIVE: St. Louis Cardinals 5, Houston Astros 4 (Redbirds Shrink Rocketmen's Lead, 3-2)

That train whistle sounding through Minute Maid Park can sound as lonesome as a backwoods crossing along a dark dirt road, especially if you are the visiting team and your pitching ace has just been taken over the scoreboard.

But if you hear a surge of multiple buzzing segue in as the whistle begins to fade, and you are a pitcher who has only allowed one home run against you in this ballpark before, you can feel so lonesome you could cry when you don't feel so furious you could wrap a bat around the head of any Houston Astro thought to be a Killer B.

Or, you could send your own resident pest up in the top of the ninth, down to your final strike before wait 'till next year, and have him all but shove a base hit through a pair of diving Houston infielders on the left side. Then, you can have your next man wring out a base on balls. And then, you can have your number one hammer pound one over the tracks on which that train rides upon the Astros' bombs.

When Lance Berkman squared off against Chris Carpenter in the bottom of the seventh Monday night, with the St. Louis Cardinals ace still up 2-1, and Craig Biggio (safe when a tweener hop played off third baseman Hector Luna's glove heel and chest) and Chris Burke (a hit-and-run single through the hole at second, sending Biggio to third) on ahead of him. Carpenter pumped Berkman something that tailed back over the plate at the knees, and Berkman pumped it on a rising line the other way into the left field porch.

And the Minute Maid audience dared to believe in the plateau of their collective scream that the Astros were now a mere six defensive outs from starting the World Series in the city where the franchise was awarded in the first place, forty-five years to the day earlier. The Astros' bullpen could have been forgiven for thinking it could shift from defensive to attack pitching, after Andy Pettitte's gallant start had left his mates a 2-1 hole in six and a third and Chad Qualls spelled him to quell another David Eckstein-instigated Cardinal threat in the top of the seventh, turning it over to Mike Gallo (erasing Larry Walker on one pitch to open) and Dan Wheeler in the eighth.

Perhaps from desperation did Cardinal manager Tony LaRussa hand off to his closer, Jason Isringhausen, for the bottom of the eighth, the idea seeming to be that if Isringhausen could deliver precisely what he went forth to deliver, two innings of shutout relief, the Cardinals could make it difficult if not impossible for the Astros' long-time-a-coming party to pull the first cork.

First the Cardinals had to find a way around Brad Lidge, in search of saving his fourth consecutive LCS game and becoming the first since a former LaRussa charge, Dennis Eckersley in 1988, to save four LCS games in any order. And it came down to Eckstein with two out in the top of the ninth and the Redbirds down to their final strike. Not an Astro fan alive believed a thing but what they were going to the mountaintop at long enough last.

Do you think the Los Angeles Angels are still happy with the swap they made winter last, letting Eckstein walk and signing Orlando Cabrera, who did as little to prevent a lost Angel pennant as Eckstein was about to do trying to interrupt if not prevent a first Houston pennant?

"He's not going to just give up an at-bat," marveled former Arizona Diamondbacks manager Bob Brenly, in the Fox Sports analyst's chair, "whether it's a B-game in spring training or an elimination game in this LCS here. He's going to give you everything he's got every minute he's got that uniform on."

On one ball and two strikes, he snuck one between Adam Everett diving right from shortstop and Morgan Ensberg diving left from third base, each trying to plug the hole, Eckstein's roller seeming to admonish, "Don't even think about it, boys." Up stepped Jim Edmonds, and down to first base on five pitches he strolled, not a syllable of reproach toward any umpire passing his lips this time around, and Albert Pujols checked in, swinging on and missing a first pitch slider that dropped to the dirt like a roller coaster.

Pujols then swung on a second pitch slider hanging right over the tee and drove it right up and out off a window frame post above and behind the tracks on which that lonesome whistleblowing home run train crawls on the home team's bombs. Lidge sank into a crouch on the mound. Pettitte in the Astros' dugout followed the flight of the drive, with Roger Clemens sitting balefully behind him, and said as his jaw hung down, "Oh, my God . . . "

Carpenter was off the hook for the Berkman bomb, which had ruined a splendid evening's work otherwise (one earned run, seven scattered hits, one walk, six punchouts to that point), Pettitte had been as game and on game as he had been all those postseason turns for the Yankees, and the Astros' bullpen had done its standard business until Pujols collapsed Lidge and put the game deeper into Isringhausen's hands.
The righthander found no crueler punctuation than Chris Burke—the unexpected division-series winning bombardier, making his bones admirably as a Killer B in training—launching one deep to right center that restored the air so graphically sucked from the Minute Maid chamber long enough for Walker to pedal back near the track to snap it shut for the return trip to St. Louis.

The Astros receive barely a tenth of one percent of the ink and font expended upon such elongated sorrows as those from Anaheim, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. But the Astros are catching up for extraterrestrial and eleventh-hour heartbreak. The others (including the Giants, if you count their years in New York) can say they've been to the Promised Land and back. The Astros have not even reached the mountaintop unmolested.

"I just couldn't believe I did this," Pujols said modestly in the postgame press conference. The Astros and their fans could believe it even less, and maybe a little bit more.

—Jeff Kallman
Tuesday, October 18


GAME FOUR, NLCS: Houston Astros 2, St. Louis Cardinals 1 (Textraterrestrials Lead Series, 3-1)

How tempting it must seem by now to paraphrase Casey Stengel, with or without the inadvertent word reversal: Can't anybody here call this game? The Houston Astros and the St. Louis Cardinals seem to the outsider to have almost as many umpire problems as the Los Angeles Angels and the Chicago White Sox have had. And there is a sense that the Cardinals especially have to walk gingerly when questioned about it or addressing it on their own.

Fair or unfair, two decades removed or not, these Cardinals are now faced with the unpleasant reminders that a different team of them so overreacted to a flagrantly blown World Series call that they went from three outs away from the ring to a seventh game humiliation.

Those Redbirds let Don Denkinger stay in their heads instead of keeping the Kansas City Royals out of their hides, and to this day the best team in the 1980s National League not named the New York Mets is remembered as crass chokers rather than the only three-time pennant winners in the league that decade. These Redbirds have to do everything they can to keep Phil Cuzzi and Tom McClelland out of their heads and the Houston Astros out of their hides.

"This game, there's some real great things about it, and there's some things that absolutely stink," said Tony LaRussa, after the Astros outlasted them Sunday afternoon, 2-1, the Cardinals having to play the final couple of innings without the boss or their center fielder. "Normally, when you miss some chances like they had the last couple of days it comes back to haunt you. Our organization does a great job playing against the other side, we don't play against the umpires."

Perhaps somebody showed him films of Games Six and Seven, 1985 Series, the anti-stars of the show a Cardinal team who showed the world the depths to which playing against an umpire could drive a team who had no business collapsing against a club that probably had no business being in the Series against them.

LaRussa got thrown out of Sunday afternoon's fun in the bottom of the seventh, having spent a fair amount of time carping from the Cardinals' dugout after Jason Marquis, in relief of Jeff Suppan, walked Astros pinch-hitter Orlando Palmeiro and, an infield hit and a fly out later, Lance Berkman to load the bases. LaRussa carped about the liberal strike zone, yet Cuzzi had been calling it that way for both sides' pitchers.

As many accuse the breed of liking to do, the law degree-holding LaRussa refused to let the debate drop and Cuzzi refused to let him stay in the game. That's when LaRussa plunged up from the dugout, needing McClelland to keep him from turning Cuzzi into calzone. Astros manager Phil Garner merely sent swift rookie Willy Taveras out to run for Palmeiro at third, and Morgan Ensberg hit a straightaway fly off which Jim Edmonds in center had no prayer of nailing Taveras at the plate with the second Houston run.

An inning and two outs later, Mark Grudzielanek on first with a leadoff hit off Astros reliever Dan Wheeler, Edmonds looked at a count-filling strike on a high and tight pitch suspiciously similar to the fourth ball awarded Berkman. Edmonds said afterward that he said nothing beyond asking Cuzzi where the pitch was and how he could call it a strike. On television it looked as though Edmonds had barked one of the, ahem, magic words at Cuzzi, who thumbed him faster than the pitch sailed up into Brad Ausmus's mitt.

John Rodriguez pinch-hit for Edmonds to finish the at-bat and sent a long fly to the back of Minute Maid Park. Taveras—staying in the game playing center field, in a kind of quadruple switch that moved center fielder Chris Burke to left, Berkman from left to first, Wheeler to the mound, and first baseman Mike Lamb out of the game—ran back to the track and onto the odd, upward berm at the back of center field to haul down the fly.

"I'm not trying to get thrown out of a playoff game," Edmonds insisted when it was over and the Astros stood a game away from their first-ever World Series. "I don't think I was adamant. I said, `I'm just trying to ask you why that ball's a strike,' and asked him to do a better job and he threw me out.''

Cuzzi's side will not be known for awhile at this writing, and neither will McClellands. For reasons upon which one can speculate at best, the umpires were kept unavailable for postgame comment. At least neither LaRussa nor Edmonds was threatened with a hefty fine. Yet.

Those rounds almost but did not quite spoil a rather tautly played game, pried open at first by the Cardinals in the top of the fourth, when David Eckstein (what a surprise: a leadoff walk, his second of the game) came home on Albert Pujols's sacrifice liner to right off Astros starter Brandon Backe. Larry Walker wrung out a followup walk, but Reggie Sanders looked at strike three close and hissed a bit at Cuzzi before John Mabry—pressed into service at third base, with Abraham Nunez nursing his still-sore left knee—flied out to right center.

The Astros waited exactly one out in the bottom of the fourth to tie it up at one, Jason Lane sending one into the left field short porch with one out, the Minute Maid Park acoustics as usual shaping the home run train's whistle into a wind-like howl that sounds like death come calling. Backe held on through two thirds of the sixth before Pujols's bullet single to left compelled Garner to bring in Mike Gallo, who got Walker to hop one to Craig Biggio at second for the side.

Suppan had delivered the Cardinals a yeoman's performance in his own right, and Marquis at first picked up where Suppan left off, Ensberg's leadoff hit a mere interruption to his dispatching Lamb, walking Lane, punching out Ausmus (looking almost befuddled at three straight strikes), and getting Adam Everett to ground out.

Things would not be quite that simple again the rest of the game. Marquis managed to strand Everett and Taveras (a pair of two-out hits) in the bottom of the eighth, but Brad Lidge managed to survive Pujols (a leadoff single off Taveras's body in right center) and Walker (a pulled hit past a diving Berkman at first) opening the top of the ninth, with a lot of help from Ensberg, who picked off Sanders's tapper up the third base line and threw Pujols out at the plate as Walker ran to third; and, with a lot more help from Eric Bruntlett, spelling Biggio at second for the ninth and turning a tight and deft Area Code 4-6-3 off Mabry's hard grounder for the game.

Like the Angels after the strikeout heard 'round the world the previous Wednesday, the Cardinals worked swiftly enough to remind themselves that there are reasons often enough why an umpire's dubious call is not half the factor that an opponent's anything but dubious play is. "You've got to remember one thing," Edmonds said. "There's a good team and they're playing well, they're playing with a lot of emotion, and they're beating us. You can't make excuses. We're not doing the job and they are.''

And "they" are one win and Andy Pettitte, ailing or otherwise, from the World Series.

—Jeff Kallman
Monday, October 17

Movie of the Week

The Catcher Was A Spy

by Nicholas Dawidoff

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