Pujols' homer lifts Cards

Tuesday, October 18, 2005
Albert Pujols hit a three-run homer for the Cardinals in the ninth inning Monday to lift St. Louis to a 5-4 win in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series. (DAVID J. PHILLIP ~ Associated Press)

HOUSTON -- Whoa there, Astros.

Albert Pujols and the St. Louis Cardinals aren't ready to hand over that National League pennant just yet.

With Houston only one tantalizing out from its first World Series, Pujols saved St. Louis by hitting a stunning three-run homer off Brad Lidge in the ninth inning, and the Cardinals rallied for a 5-4 victory Monday night in Game 5 of the NL Championship Series.

Pujols' shot over the train tracks high above the left-field wall sent the series back to St. Louis for Game 6 on Wednesday night, with Mark Mulder set to face Houston's Roy Oswalt.

The Cardinals also staved off the wrecking ball at Busch Stadium, scheduled for demolition as soon as their season is over.

One strike from ecstasy before David Eckstein's ninth-inning single, the Astros dropped to an agonizing 0-5 with a chance to clinch the NLCS.

One moment, Minute Maid Park was buzzing. The next, it was silent.

After winning pitcher Jason Isringhausen closed it with two innings of scoreless relief, shocked fans filed quietly out of the ballpark.

Lance Berkman's three-run homer in the seventh off Chris Carpenter gave Houston a 4-2 lead, sending the crowd into a deafening roar.

The Astros then put the series in Lidge's normally sure hands. But, trying for his fourth straight save in the series, he couldn't come through.

After Lidge retired his first two batters in the ninth, Eckstein grounded a single to left on a 1-2 pitch. Jim Edmonds worked out a walk and Pujols, who failed to deliver with runners on all night, drove an 0-1 pitch over the limestone facade.

Astros starter Andy Pettitte, in the dugout and ready to celebrate with his teammates, mouthed the words "Oh, my" as the ball left the park. Pujols took a moment to watch it sail while Lidge sunk into a crouch on the mound.

When Pujols got back to the dugout, manager Tony La Russa grabbed him for a huge hug.

"He just told me, 'The Great Pujols,'" the slugger said. "They're going to be ready in St. Louis. We just need to win two before we lose one."

It was a crushing loss for the Astros and their "Killer B's." Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell still are trying to reach the World Series for the first time after 15 years as teammates.

"It's terrible. You're high as a kite one minute," Astros manager Phil Garner said. "We were feeling pretty good, but you have to play every out."

With a chance to reach the World Series for the first time in their 44-season history, the wild-card Astros drew a revved-up crowd that was ready to party.

When they went ahead late, a nice touch of symmetry seemed to be in store: Exactly 45 years ago Monday, Houston was awarded an expansion franchise at an NL meeting in Chicago.

That's where the winner of this series will go -- to face the White Sox -- but it's not over yet, thanks to Pujols.

Biggio's broken-bat RBI single with two outs gave Houston a lead in the second.

Drawing on all his postseason experience, Pettitte pitched out of trouble in the first two innings -- but couldn't escape in the third.

Eckstein singled, stole second and moved to third on Edmonds' single. After Pujols and Reggie Sanders struck out, the left-hander walked Larry Walker, loading the bases.

Mark Grudzielanek, batting .138 in the postseason when he stepped to the plate, looped a soft single to right, driving in two runs for a 2-1 lead.

Pettitte gave up two runs and seven hits in 6 1/3 innings. He was tagged for five runs in a Game 1 loss, when he pitched with a swollen right knee after getting struck with a sharply hit ball while running the bases during batting practice.

Notes: Edmonds' seventh-inning popup hit the roof and was a foul ball by rule even though it was caught in fair territory by SS Adam Everett. ... In a nod to hockey tradition, Pettitte sported a playoff beard, just as many of his teammates have lately. ... The only pitcher to save four games in an LCS was Oakland's Dennis Eckersley against Boston in 1988.

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