SERIES: NL championship series; Game 1.
The Astros head to St. Louis to take on a powerful Cardinals team that will play in the league championship series for the third time in five years.
Houston came out on top in a hard-fought, five-game division series with the Atlanta Braves, winning 12-3 in Game 5. The Astros had a chance to clinch at home Sunday, but lost for the first time in 19 games at Minute Maid Park and had to travel to Turner Field for the decisive contest.
That turned out to be the only easy game for Houston in the series, as Carlos Beltran capped a dominant performance by hitting two more homers and driving in five runs.
Original Killer B’s Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, cornerstones of the 1997, ’99 and ’01 Houston clubs that lost to Atlanta in the first round, chipped in during a five-run seventh inning that buried the Braves.
“It’s nice to move on,” the 38-year-old Biggio said. “Finally.”
While Houston advanced for the first time in seven postseason tries, it took all the team’s resources to do so, and that could be a major factor early in this series.
The Astros would have started 20-game winner Roy Oswalt in the opener if they had finished off the Braves in four games. With Oswalt having to start Game 5 on three days’ rest, the Astros will be forced to go with 26-year-old right-hander Brandon Backe, who went 5-3 in just nine starts this season, although he pitched well in winning a division series start against Atlanta.
Oswalt and fellow ace Roger Clemens probably won’t pitch until Games 3 and 4, giving the Cardinals an advantage on the mound in the first two games at home.
St. Louis isn’t facing the fatigue factor that Houston is, having eliminated the Los Angeles Dodgers with a 6-2 win in Game 4 on Sunday night. Pujols homered and drove in four runs as the Cardinals finished off an impressive first-round victory.
St. Louis, which had a major league-best 105 wins this season, outscored Los Angeles 22-12.
“I always try not to get too carried away,” said right fielder Larry Walker, who homered twice in Game 1 against the Dodgers and went 5-for-15 with six runs in the series. “I mean, we know where we’re at and that we have an opportunity, but we want to stay at an even keel.”
The Cards’ deep, veteran lineup that includes Walker, Pujols, who also went 5-for-15 in the division series, Jim Edmonds and Edgar Renteria wore down the Dodgers pitching in the first round. Those players will look to do so again, starting against Backe and Pete Munro, who’s expected to get the ball for the Astros in Game 2.
A concern for the Cardinals, however, is struggling cleanup hitter Scott Rolen, who was hitless in 12 at-bats in the division series and is at less than full strength. The third baseman drove in 124 runs and batted .358 with runners in scoring position this season, but was sidelined for 16 games in late September with a strained left calf muscle and has gone 3-for-29 with one homer since returning.
“I think he’s a little bit off,” Pujols said. “But he’s a strong guy and he knows that he’s going to get his hits.
“I’m pretty sure he’s going to come around. He’s the best third baseman in the league and I know he’s going to come up big when we need it.”
St. Louis’ two days off allowed it to set up its rotation, with Woody Williams starting his second straight Game 1 for the Cards. Starting pitching was perceived to be the team’s major weakness going into the division series, but Williams set the tone for St. Louis by allowing two runs in six innings in an 8-3 win.
The Cardinals pitchers will be trying to do something the Braves pitching staff couldn’t—get Beltran out consistently. The Astros’ emerging star went 10-for-22 with eight RBIs against Atlanta.
“When I played in Kansas City, a lot of people didn’t know who I was,” he said. “But as soon as I was traded to Houston, people started realizing who I was.”
St. Louis also can’t afford to overlook Bagwell and Biggio. The pair was often blamed for much of Houston’s past postseason futility, but Biggio was 8-for-20 (.400) with a homer and four RBIs against the Braves, while Bagwell was 7-for-22 (.318) with two homers and five RBIs.
While the tired Astros come into this series as the underdogs, a win in Game 1 or 2 would put them in an excellent position heading home for Games 3, 4 and 5.
Clemens, who continued his Hall of Fame career by signing with his hometown Astros this season and may win the Cy Young Award, probably will pitch Game 3. He’d be followed by Oswalt, who allowed two runs in five innings Monday night, and that power-pitching combination could give Houston control of the series.
Game 2 will be Thursday night at Busch Stadium.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Astros - Wild-card winner; beat Atlanta Braves 3-2, division series. Cardinals - NL Central champion; beat Los Angeles Dodgers 3-1, division series.
PROJECTED LINEUPS: Astros - LF Biggio (.281, 24 HRs, 63 RBIs, 47 2Bs, 100 runs), CF Beltran (.267, 38, 104, 42 SBs for Kansas City and Houston), 1B Bagwell (.266, 27, 89), RF Lance Berkman (.316, 30, 106, 127 BBs, 104 runs), 2B Jeff Kent (.289, 27, 107), 3B Morgan Ensberg (.275, 10, 66), SS Jose Vizcaino (.274, 3, 33), C Brad Ausmus (.248, 5, 31). Cardinals - 2B Tony Womack (.307 avg., 5 HRs, 38 RBIs, 26 SBs), RF Walker (.298, 17, 47 in 258 at-bats with Colorado and St. Louis), 1B Pujols (.331, 46, 123, 51 2Bs, 133 runs), 3B Rolen (.314, 34, 124), CF Edmonds (.301, 42, 111, 38 2Bs), 2B Renteria (.287, 10, 72, 17 SBs), LF Reggie Sanders (.260, 22, 67, 21 SBs), C Mike Matheny (.247, 5, 50).
ASTROS PROBABLE STARTING PITCHER: Backe (5-3, 4.30 ERA). The right-hander pitched six innings and allowed two runs and five hits in six innings for an 8-5 win over the Braves on Saturday, his first career playoff start. The victory gave Backe wins in three straight starts. Backe went 1-0 with a 2.77 ERA in six games, including two starts, against the Cardinals this season.
CARDINALS PROBABLE STARTING PITCHER: Williams (11-8, 4.18 ERA). The veteran right-hander is 9-4 with a 4.00 ERA in 17 career starts against Houston, but posted a 9.00 ERA and went 1-1 in three outings against the Astros in 2004. Williams is 2-1 with a 2.84 ERA in three career postseason starts.
SEASON SERIES: Cardinals, 12-6.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Astros - Bagwell is hitting .348 (16-for-46) with five HRs and four doubles against Williams. … The Astros shattered the NL division series record by scoring 36 runs. The Braves set the previous mark of 27 in 1995. … Beltran is 1-for-11 against Williams. Cardinals - Pujols hit .371 (23-for-62) with five HRs, seven RBIs and four doubles against Houston this season. … Edmonds batted just .190 (12-for-63) against Houston in 2004, though he did have three HRs and 14 RBIs. … Matheny is 5-for-11 in his career against Munro.
REGULAR SEASON ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Astros - 2-1 on the road. Cardinals - 2-0 at home.