SERIES: NL championship series; Cardinals lead, 2-0.
The Houston Astros knew they would be coming home needing strong starts from their two aces.
Clemens tries to provide the Astros with a big lift as they return to Minute Maid Park looking to climb out of an 0-2 deficit against the Cardinals in the NL championship series.
With virtual unknowns Brandon Backe and Pete Munro starting Games 1 and 2, Houston fans realized their team would be fortunate just to leave St. Louis with a split. That didn’t happen as neither Backe nor Munro could get through the fifth inning, and the Cardinals beat up the Astros’ relievers, winning 10-7 in the opener and 6-4 on Thursday.
“Well, it’s what we wanted to do,” St. Louis right fielder Larry Walker said. “Obviously, having the home-field advantage and now having a 2-0 lead is big when you got to go against Clemens and Oswalt.”
The good news for Houston is that both Clemens and Oswalt will be pitching on five days’ rest, unlike in Games 4 and 5 of the NL division series against Atlanta when both had just three days off between starts.
Both are Cy Young Award candidates, with Clemens in contention for an unprecedented seventh and Oswalt—the NL’s only 20-game winner—seeking his first. Oswalt is slated to start Game 4 on Sunday.
“Those guys have been our horses all year and we’ll turn to them now and ask them to do what they’ve been doing all year, and that’s win for us,” Astros manager Phil Garner said.
The 42-year-old Clemens, who went 18-4 in the regular season and finished fifth in the NL in ERA (2.98) and strikeouts (218), should benefit from the extra time off heading into a start which could save the Astros’ season.
He was still recovering from a stomach flu in Game 4 of the NLDS as he labored through five innings, throwing 87 pitches. But Clemens allowed just two runs before the Astros’ bullpen faltered in a 6-5 loss.
Clemens overcame a season-high six walks to win Game 1 against the Braves, giving up two earned runs in seven innings of a 9-3 victory—his fourth straight winning decision in the postseason.
He’s anxious to tame the Cardinals’ hot bats Saturday.
“You’ll notice during the game that if I’m making good pitches and guys are getting their nose out where they might not should be, then you’ll have to adjust,” he said. “Simple as that.”
The only time in his last seven outings in which he’s given up more than two runs came against St. Louis on Sept. 29. In his other three outings this year against the Cardinals, however, Clemens went 2-0 with a 1.31 ERA.
Garner knows the level of intensity Clemens brings to the mound this time of year.
“There’s no question that he’s intense when he’s in the game,” Garner said. “But it’s not sort of a YMCA, ‘I’m going to go out, play the game and have fun’ kind of deal. That’s not what we’re talking about.
“This is, ‘I love this game, yes, but we’re going to win or somebody’s going to die,”’ he said. “It’s almost that serious, I hate to say it like that.”
The short-rest starts by Clemens and Oswalt to close the division series, as well as those by Backe and Munro earlier this week, have put a strain on Houston’s struggling bullpen.
Reliever Chad Harville gave up a run for the second straight night Thursday, and Dan Miceli surrendered back-to-back homers to Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen in the eighth inning that proved to be the difference.
Houston’s relief corps has surrendered nine runs and nine hits in 6 2-3 innings in this series.
“I really believe if we’re going to go anywhere, you have to have those other guys pitch and win, too,” Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell said. “We’re going to need contributions from everybody.”
Plenty of St. Louis’ top hitters are contributing in the NLCS.
Rolen homered twice Thursday and had an RBI single in Game 1 after going through an 0-for-14 slump. Pujols has reached base in seven of his nine plate appearances while homering in both games, driving in three runs and scoring four. Walker, who hit a two-run homer Thursday, had a single, double and triple in the opener.
The sluggers are a big reason why St. Louis is in such a good position. Of 61 teams to take a 2-0 lead in a best-of-seven matchup, only 12 have failed to win the series.
“We open at home, you earn that advantage, it’s nice to get the two,” Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. “But, I mean, there’s nobody whooping it up in that dugout or that clubhouse.”
La Russa now turns to Jeff Suppan, who is 11-1 with a 3.48 ERA away from home this season. That record includes a win in the NLDS Game 4 clincher at Los Angeles on Sunday, when he allowed two runs and two hits over seven innings of a 6-2 victory in his playoff debut.
Suppan’s only road loss this season came at Minute Maid Park in his final start of the regular season, and he went 1-4 against the Astros this year. His first three outings against Houston were all quality starts, but he went 1-2 as Houston reached him for 13 runs—eight earned—and 19 hits in 10 2-3 innings last month.
One of Suppan’s biggest concerns should be dealing with Carlos Beltran, whose homer Thursday gave him six in these playoffs to tie Bernie Williams for the most by a switch-hitter in a single postseason. Beltran is batting .448 with 12 RBIs through seven playoff games.
PROJECTED LINEUPS: 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 Jim Edmonds (.301, 42, 111, 38 2Bs), 2B Edgar Renteria (.287, 10, 72, 17 SBs), LF Reggie Sanders (.260, 22, 67, 21 SBs), C Mike Matheny (.247, 5, 50). Astros - LF Craig 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 PROBABLE STARTING PITCHER: Suppan (1-0, 2.57 ERA). The right-hander had a career-high 16 wins during the regular season to go with a 4.16 ERA. He’s 2-6 with a 4.75 ERA in 10 career appearances against Houston.
ASTROS PROBABLE STARTING PITCHER: Clemens (1-0, 3.00 ERA). In his only appearance against St. Louis before this year, Clemens notched his 300th victory and 4,000th strikeout while pitching for the New York Yankees in a 5-2 win on June 13, 2003. Clemens, unbeaten in 12 starts since Aug. 8, is 9-6 with a 3.44 ERA in 28 career postseason outings.
REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Astros, 10-8.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Cardinals - Rolen has homered twice in nine at-bats against Clemens this season. … St. Louis, which led the NL with 855 runs scored, has totaled at least six runs in five of six playoff games. … Walker, who hit .214 in his only previous playoff appearance with Colorado in 1995, has at least two hits in three games this postseason and is batting .375 (9-for-24) overall. Astros - Closer Brad Lidge, yet to appear in this series, allowed one hit in 9 2-3 scoreless innings against St. Louis this season. He walked three and struck out 16 while recording three saves. … Houston’s 3-4-5 hitters— Bagwell, Berkman and Kent—were a combined 20-for-46 (.435) with two homers and 13 RBIs against Suppan this season. … Vizcaino is a career .631 hitter (13-for-21) against Suppan.
POSTSEASON ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Cardinals - 1-1 on the road. Astros - 1-1 at home.