Astros loose and confident despite stunning loss

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ST. LOUIS (AP)—The Houston Astros hardly sounded shaken.

Even after a stunning loss to St. Louis in Game 5 of the NL championship series, they made sure to needle All-Star closer Brad Lidge about the jaw-dropping homer he gave up to Albert Pujols with two outs in the ninth inning.

“We kidded with him the whole time on the plane today. We actually told him we almost got hit by the ball when it took off,” Roy Oswalt said Tuesday. “The mood on the plane was actually pretty cool.”

Pujols’ home run Monday night, already one of the most memorable in postseason history, denied the Astros their first World Series berth—at least for a couple of days—and sent the best-of-seven NLCS back to St. Louis for Game 6 on Wednesday night.

With Houston leading 3-2, Cardinals lefty Mark Mulder will pitch against Oswalt, who won their Game 2 matchup. What’s more, after a long season that produced this playoff rematch, the Astros and Cardinals are right back where they were a year ago.

Busch Stadium, Game 6.

Houston needs one victory to win the pennant. For St. Louis, it takes two.

“It is weird how we’re back in the same position we were last year, but that’s what makes it so much fun,” Cardinals reliever Jason Isringhausen said.

Last season, it was the Astros who were riding a wave of momentum after Jeff Kent’s three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth won Game 5.

This time, Pujols’ three-run shot off Lidge over the train tracks high above the left-field wall at Minute Maid Park has the Cardinals sky high.

“Hopefully, this is the spark that we were looking for,” said Pujols, batting .447 with six homers and 15 RBIs in the past two NLCS meetings with Houston. “The best thing we need to do is not let them celebrate in our stadium. We’ve been in this spot before.”

Last year, the Cardinals won twice in a row at home, rallying to beat Roger Clemens in Game 7 to advance to the World Series, where they were swept by Boston.

But the Astros feel better about their situation this time because their pitching rotation is lined up the way they want.

“They’re trying to catch us, we’re not trying to catch them,” Oswalt said.

Last season, journeyman Pete Munro started Game 6. This year it’s Oswalt, coming off consecutive 20-win seasons. And if he can’t close it out, Clemens will go in Game 7 again.

Plus, Houston has a road victory in Game 2 to draw on as opposed to 2004, when the home team won every game in the series.

“I think that gives us a lot of confidence,” general manager Tim Purpura said. “Last year, obviously we had two bites at the apple. This year we’ve got three, and we’ve got two more to go.

“We can win this thing. We’ve got one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball going tomorrow, and we’ve got another dominant pitcher going the night after that. So we feel, certainly, very well set up for it.”

The Astros were set up for a wild celebration Monday night, too. They were one strike from eliminating St. Louis before David Eckstein’s ninth-inning single started the rally in Game 5.

“It’s not as neat of a story if we don’t keep winning,” Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said.

The series winner heads to Chicago to begin the World Series on Saturday night against the AL champion White Sox.

Busch Stadium will be demolished soon after St. Louis’ season ends to make way for a new ballpark next year, so the Cardinals are also playing to stave off the wrecking ball for as long as possible.

“It’s a challenge. I think everybody on this staff, including myself, you want to be out there in an important game and be that guy who has got to make the pitches and get the job done,” said Mulder, a tough-luck loser in Game 2 after throwing seven strong innings. “That’s obviously where I’m going to be tomorrow night and I’m looking forward to it.”

The Cardinals went through a light, optional workout on their home field Tuesday; the Astros did not work out. La Russa said he expects third baseman Abraham Nunez to be back in the lineup Wednesday night after missing the past two games with a deep thigh bruise.

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