SERIES: NL championship series; Astros lead, 3-2.
Just over two months ago, the Houston Astros were considered the biggest disappointment in baseball with a losing record and the playoffs seemingly out of reach.
Now they’re one win away from playing in the World Series for the first time.
Houston has two chances to get there as the NL championship series heads back to St. Louis, where the Cardinals have not lost this postseason.
Rather than turn to one of the best pitchers in baseball history, manager Phil Garner hopes another unheralded starter can come up big for the Astros as they try to hand baseball’s best team during the regular season an abrupt playoff exit.
The doubters who felt the postseason was unattainable when the Astros were 56-60 in mid-August—the team went 36-10 thereafter—also may have thought Houston was finished after falling into an 0-2 hole in this series.
Instead, the Astros stormed back to win all three games in Houston, including a 3-0 victory in Monday’s Game 5 on Jeff Kent’s three-run homer in the ninth.
Garner got an incredible performance from Brandon Backe as he allowed one hit in eight innings.
Like Backe, Pete Munro was a virtual unknown heading into this postseason but now he’ll be counted on in Game 6, with Garner opting to save Roger Clemens for potential Game 7 instead of starting him on three days’ rest.
“I was kind of overwhelmed,” Munro said. “I’m sure they’d rather face me than Roger. I’d rather face me than Roger.”
Though Garner will be questioned for the move—he could have used 20-game winner Roy Oswalt on three days’ rest in Game 7 if Clemens started Game 6— it’s hard to argue against him.
Clemens lasted just five innings against Atlanta in the NL division series when he went on three days’ rest, and starters working on short rest in the playoffs have gone 7-19 with a 5.65 ERA in the last six years.
“Asking Roger to come back on short days two of three starts, I’m not sure if that’s the right move,” Garner said. “All things considered, I think it’s best to let him pitch on his fifth day.”
While Kent has keyed Houston’s offense in this series with three homers and seven RBIs, Carlos Beltran continues to be the star of the postseason for the Astros.
His playoff record of five straight games with a homer ended Monday, but he made two terrific catches and sparked the ninth-inning rally with a single and a stolen base. Beltran is hitting .462 in these playoffs with eight homers, 14 RBIs and 18 runs scored.
St. Louis’ potent offense struggled in Houston.
After scoring at least six runs in five of six playoff games, the Cardinals were held to a total of seven in three games at hitter-friendly Minute Maid Park. St. Louis, limited to 15 hits in the three defeats, led the NL in runs scored and batting average during the regular season.
The Cardinals topped the majors with 105 wins and easily won the NL Central, but now face an unfamiliar must-win predicament.
“It’s just a situation where you go out and you prepare yourself and you let it all go,” Cardinals third baseman Scott Rolen said. “You play with as much heart as you possibly have and you dig deep and see what you come up with.”
The Cardinals have averaged eight runs in winning all four of their home games during these playoffs. They knocked Munro out in the fifth inning of a 6-4 win in Game 2. Then again, Backe also failed to get through the fifth in Game 1 and he dominated the St. Louis lineup Monday.
“It’s not over,” St. Louis first baseman Albert Pujols said. “Until you get beat four times it’s not over. We feel pretty comfortable here and we’ve played great in the postseason at home, and it’s going to help us.”
St. Louis fans have reason to be optimistic. The Cardinals have been down 3-2 in a best-of-seven series five times, and have come back to win them all. They’ve done it four times in the World Series, and most recently against San Francisco in the 1987 NLCS.
As they did in Game 2, the Cardinals will put Matt Morris up against Munro. Morris labored through five innings in the previous matchup and did not get a decision, allowing three runs and six hits while walking five.
Morris was the loser in St. Louis’ only defeat to Los Angeles in the division series, and has won only once in 11 career playoff appearances (1-4), including seven starts.
“I think the feeling with this team all year has been that we’ve been a team that should go to a World Series and compete for a ring,” Morris said. “I think that’s the difference that we have, just the feeling and the belief in ourselves.”
The St. Louis bullpen, meanwhile, could be very thin because the status of two top set-up men remains in question.
Left-hander Steve Kline hasn’t pitched since Game 2, when he aggravated a torn tendon in his left index finger. Right-hander Julian Tavarez broke his left hand during a dugout tantrum after giving up a tiebreaking homer to Beltran in the seventh inning of Houston’s 6-5 win Sunday.
Cardinals relievers allowed eight of Houston’s 14 runs in Games 3-5, including five homers.
PROJECTED LINEUPS: 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 Jeff Bagwell (.266, 27, 89), RF Lance Berkman (.316, 30, 106, 127 BBs, 104 runs), 2B 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 Larry 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 PROBABLE STARTING PITCHER: Munro (0-0, 5.79 ERA). Munro, who had never pitched in the playoffs before this series, went 4-7 with a 5.29 ERA during the regular season. He was 1-4 with a 6.56 ERA in nine regular-season appearances against the Cardinals. The right-hander hasn’t pitched past the fifth inning in any of his last seven starts.
CARDINALS PROBABLE STARTING PITCHER: Morris (0-1, 5.25 ERA). Morris pitched fairly well against Houston during the regular season, going 2-1 with a 3.08 ERA in four starts. He’s already surrendered four homers in two playoff games after serving up 35 this season, among the NL leaders.
REGULAR SEASON SERIES: Astros, 10-8.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Astros - Closer Brad Lidge, who did not appear in Games 1 or 2, got two saves and a win in Games 3-5. He allowed one hit in five innings, walking two and striking out nine. … RHP Dan Wheeler has thrown six scoreless innings in four appearances this postseason, giving up two hits and no walks. … Berkman, who had a two-run single off Morris in Game 2, is a career .375 hitter (21-for-56) against the right-hander. Cardinals - Despite getting St. Louis’ only hit Monday, Womack is 3-for-21 in this series after hitting .158 (3-for-19) in the first round against Los Angeles. … St. Louis is 1-3 this postseason when Pujols doesn’t get at least two hits. … Sanders is hitless in his last 10 at-bats.
POSTSEASON ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Astros - 2-3 on the road. Cardinals - 4-0 at home.