HOUSTON (AP)—First baseman Lance Berkman stretched as far as he could, squeezed the throw tight and hopped high in the air with glee.
One more win and the Astros will have the whole city of Houston jumping for joy.
Poised closer Brad Lidge pitched his way out of a major mess in the ninth inning, defensive replacement Eric Bruntlett started a game-ending double play and Houston scratched out a 2-1 victory over St. Louis on Sunday in Game 4 of the NLCS to move within one win of its first World Series.
“I’m starting to believe,” said 39-year-old Craig Biggio, on the cusp of a lifelong dream.
Now it’s the steaming-mad Cardinals who are in a serious jam.
“Guess what? If we’re going to be a champion, we’ve got to come back,” shortstop David Eckstein said. “We might not be able to sleep tonight, but that’s normal.”
Lidge stranded the potential tying run at third base to earn his third save of the series, Jason Lane homered and Willy Taveras made a saving catch on the center-field hill. Houston took advantage of a critical error by pitcher Jason Marquis—plus the ejections of St. Louis manager Tony La Russa and star Jim Edmonds by plate umpire Phil Cuzzi—to build a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
“This game, there’s some real great things about it and there’s some things that absolutely stink,” La Russa said, declining to talk specifically about the umpires.
Any postseason ejection is rare, and the last time a team lost two members came in 1998 when Cleveland pitcher Dwight Gooden and manager Mike Hargrove were tossed.
“I’m not trying to get thrown out of a playoff game. I don’t think I was adamant,” Edmonds said. “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.”
A security guard in front of the umpires’ room at Minute Maid park said they would not be available for comment.
The Astros can close it out at home Monday night, with Andy Pettitte on the mound against Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter. Houston has come this far before— the Astros were one victory from the Fall Classic in 1980 and 2004, but are 0-4 overall with a chance to win the NLCS.
“For us, it’s the best one out of three right now. It doesn’t get any easier,” manager Phil Garner said. “We’re in good position in terms of our pitching, our players and everything. But the job’s still got to get done.”
St. Louis has quite an uphill climb if it wants to win its second consecutive pennant. The Cardinals must face Pettitte, Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens in the next three games—if they can push it that far.
There is some hope: St. Louis won three consecutive games started by Pettitte, Oswalt and Clemens from July 15-17 at Busch Stadium. And the Cardinals, who have lost three straight, did not have a four-game skid all season.
“They’ve got their three guys and we’ve got to find a way,” Eckstein said. “This club is very tough, very resilient, and we’re going to be tested.”
Once again in this postseason, the umpires were in the middle of all the action.
The Cardinals were angry about Cuzzi’s liberal strike zone all afternoon, and La Russa and Edmonds were ejected in the late innings for arguing balls and strikes.
The Astros are 2-for-31 with runners in scoring position during the series, so it figures that they scored the go-ahead run without a hit.
“We’ve been bad offensively all season. We’re just continuing the trend. It’s nothing new,” Mike Lamb said.
After Morgan Ensberg’s tiebreaking sacrifice fly in the seventh, Lidge entered with a 2-1 lead in the ninth.
The Cardinals managed a run against him Saturday for the first time in 31 innings, and they got something going again right away.
Reggie Sanders, who missed Game 3 with a sore neck and back, hit a bouncer to third, and Ensberg made a nice play to cut down Pujols at the plate.
But with nobody covering, Walker alertly dashed to third, putting runners at the corners again, this time with one out.
The Astros argued that they had called time out, but the umpires let Walker remain at third.
No matter to Lidge.
He got John Mabry to ground to Bruntlett at second base—though at first, the ball appeared to be hit too slowly to turn two, and it seemed the tying run would score.
Yet Bruntlett whipped an accurate throw to shortstop Adam Everett, who flipped a difficult relay to first to end the game.
Berkman reached out and gloved the ball just in time to get Mabry. First-base ump Larry Poncino punched him out—and replays showed the close call was correct.
“It was probably one of the greatest double plays ever turned,” Everett said.
Berkman jumped for joy, and the Astros rushed toward second base to mob Everett, who pumped his fist in the air when he saw the final out called.
“We needed it to be perfect and we got it,” Lidge said. “They rolled it and it was an awesome play.”
Garner made a string of defensive moves late—and they all paid off. Bruntlett came in for Biggio, Berkman moved from left field to first and Taveras took over in center in the eighth after entering as a pinch-runner.
With a runner on and two outs in the eighth, Cuzzi called Dan Wheeler’s 3-1 pitch a strike to Edmonds, who walked over to Cuzzi, argued for a moment and was tossed.
John Rodriguez pinch-hit for Edmonds and sent a long drive to center, but the speedy Taveras raced back and up the Tal’s Hill incline for an outstanding catch more than 400 feet from home plate.
“I hit it like 420 feet, what can you do?” Rodriguez said. “I just hit it to the wrong part of the park.”
Shouting from the dugout at Cuzzi, La Russa was ejected in the seventh after Marquis walked Berkman.
With the score tied at 1, pinch-hitter Orlando Palmeiro drew a leadoff walk from Marquis, who then bobbled Biggio’s bunt for an error. One out later, Berkman walked and Ensberg hit a bases-loaded sacrifice fly for a 2-1 lead.
The banged-up Cardinals got a big bat back: Sanders returned from a sore neck and back after missing Game 3, but third baseman Abraham Nunez sat out with a deep thigh bruise.
Eckstein drew a leadoff walk in the fourth, and the Cardinals capitalized. Edmonds followed with a hit-and-run double to left for St. Louis’ first hit, finally bringing Pujols to the plate with runners on base. His sacrifice fly gave the Cardinals their first lead since Game 1.
In the bottom half, Lane, who hit the go-ahead single Saturday, came through again. He lofted a 1-2 pitch into the Crawford Boxes above the short porch in left, tying the score at 1.
Mabry played 3B for the Cardinals, his first start of this postseason. … The Astros are 4-0 at home this postseason and have won seven home playoff games in a row.