SERIES: NL Championship Series; Game 1.
Facing each other with a trip to the World Series on the line.
Just as they overcame an awful start to the season, the Astros hope for an equally impressive recovery from an 18-inning marathon as they meet a Cardinals team looking to keep its ride going on cruise control in an NL championship series rematch.
Houston must be thankful it’s not in the ALCS, considering the Los Angeles Angels did not get a day of rest after closing out the Yankees in the first round. The Astros got two days off following their 5-hour, 50-minute thriller against Atlanta on Sunday, winning 7-6 in the 18th on Chris Burke’s homer to close out the Braves 3-1 in their NL division series.
“It’s been a grind for us for a long time,” Houston’s Morgan Ensberg said. “We’ve been playing playoff baseball since April.”
The Astros are just the second team in history to be 15 games under .500 and come back to make the playoffs, having gone 74-43 after opening 15-30.
The first round for the Cardinals, meanwhile, was a microcosm of their season. The result was never really in doubt, with St. Louis easily sweeping San Diego, just as it coasted through the regular season to win the NL Central by 11 games with a major league-best 100 victories.
This series could test the baseball adage that good pitching beats good hitting, considering most agree Houston has the better staff and St. Louis has the superior lineup.
The Cardinals won the NLCS last year, beating Roger Clemens in Game 7, but the Astros did not have an injured Andy Pettitte, and Roy Oswalt was available for only one start. This time, getting Monday and Tuesday off allowed Houston manager Phil Garner to set up his rotation as he wanted, with Pettitte going in Game 1 followed by Oswalt and Clemens.
“We finally have another opportunity with the Cardinals. We have a shot,” Houston second baseman Craig Biggio said. “You only get a few chances like this in your career.”
The Astros also get another crack at Chris Carpenter, who threw complete-game victories in two outings against Clemens this season and beat all three of Houston’s aces. Carpenter went 4-0 with a 1.85 ERA in five starts against the Astros.
The 21-game winner can’t boast of the postseason credentials possessed by Pettitte, whose 14 playoff victories are one behind Atlanta’s John Smoltz for the most all time. However, the Cy Young Award candidate pitched well in his playoff debut in Game 1 against the Padres, throwing six scoreless innings before leaving due to dehydration in an 8-5 victory.
“We’ve got a great club,” Carpenter said. “We’ve got to continue to play the way we’ve been playing in this series to continue to move on. We’ve got some quality guys here. We played quality games.”
Pettitte won the NLDS opener for Houston, giving up four hits and three runs in seven innings of a 10-5 victory. He has not allowed more than three earned runs in 21 consecutive starts.
The left-hander yielded three runs in 20 innings this year against St. Louis, but the lack of offensive support that often plagued Houston during the season was evident in those three outings as Pettitte went 0-1.
With Pettitte, Oswalt and Clemens going, it seems unlikely the Cardinals can duplicate the starts it put together in the first round. They outscored the Padres 19-2 in the first five innings.
Reggie Sanders was the star, setting an NLDS record with 10 RBIs, and there’s no reason to think he’ll cool off. He hit .429 with five homers and 13 RBIs in 11 games against Houston this season, including homers off Pettitte and Oswalt.
“One of the things we believe about our club is that we have a bunch of guys that are prime-timers,” Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. “They’re not afraid to take big at-bats.”
Despite easily sweeping San Diego, the Cardinals did expose what many consider their biggest flaw—a suspect bullpen. All five St. Louis relievers gave up at least one run—the three starters allowed a total of three—and they combined for an 11.88 ERA while allowing 16 hits in 8 1-3 innings.
Closer Jason Isringhausen nearly blew a four-run lead in the series opener, and has had some problems with the Astros. He suffered two blown saves and a loss in his last four appearances against them this season, and gave up four runs in 7 2-3 innings during last year’s NLCS.
Houston closer Brad Lidge, meanwhile, has dominated the Cardinals. Since the start of the 2003 season, including last year’s NLCS, Lidge has not allowed a run in 25 1-3 innings against St. Louis, yielding only four hits.
Game 2 is Thursday before the series moves to Minute Maid Park for Games 3, 4 and 5, if necessary.
PROJECTED LINEUPS: Astros - 2B Biggio (.264, 26 HRs, 69 RBIs, 17 HBP), CF Willy Taveras (.291, 3, 29, 71 infield hits, 34 SBs), 3B Ensberg (.283, 36, 101), LF Lance Berkman (.293, 24, 82, 91 walks), 1B Mike Lamb (.236, 12, 53), RF Jason Lane (.267, 26, 78), SS Adam Everett (.248, 11, 54); C Brad Ausmus (.258, 3, 47). Cardinals - SS Eckstein (.294, 8, 61, 11 SBs), CF Edmonds (.263, 29, 89), 1B Pujols (.330, 41, 117, 16 SBs), RF Larry Walker (.289, 15, 52 in 100 games), LF Sanders (.271, 21, 54 in 93 games), 2B Mark Grudzielanek (.294, 8, 59), C Yadier Molina (.252, 8, 49), 3B Nunez (.285, 5, 44).
ASTROS PROBABLE STARTING PITCHER: Pettitte (17-9, 2.39 ERA). Unbeaten since Aug. 16, Pettitte has won his last seven decisions and hasn’t given up more than three earned runs in any outing since June 14. The left-hander is 14-8 with a 4.04 ERA in 30 career postseason starts, including a 6-1 record in LCS games.
CARDINALS PROBABLE STARTING PITCHER: Carpenter (21-5, 2.83 ERA). The right-hander, who missed the 2004 playoffs with a strained biceps, is going on six days’ rest. He had five days off before holding San Diego to three hits and three walks in the NLDS opener. That outing quieted critics who wondered how effective he would be after posting a 9.14 ERA in his final four starts of the regular season. Carpenter has not lost at Busch Stadium since June 8.
SEASON SERIES: Cardinals, 11-5.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Astros - Lidge has surrendered one run in 16 1-3 career postseason innings, including four scoreless frames this year. … Ensberg hit .339 against St. Louis with five HRs this season. He singled, doubled and homered in three at-bats against Isringhausen. … Berkman has 12 homers in his last 34 games and has homered three times in 15 career at-bats against Carpenter, including twice this season. Cardinals - Pujols had four homers, eight RBIs and 12 runs against the Astros this year. However, in 12 career at-bats against Pettitte, he’s managed only two singles. … Edmonds is 3-for-30 against Pettitte. … St. Louis went 6-0 at Busch Stadium against Houston before losing two straight there in late September, though that series was virtually meaningless to the Cardinals.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Astros - 1-1 on the road. Cardinals - 2-0 at home.