Cards try to build off Pujols' blast

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

ST. LOUIS -- Tony La Russa's cell phone kept ringing, interrupting him once, twice, three times in the middle of an interview.

Understandable, really. All his friends wanted to chat after what they witnessed Monday night, when Albert Pujols' stunning homer in Houston saved St. Louis' season with two outs in the ninth inning.

"A lot of people saw it, you know," the Cardinals' manager said Tuesday. "It's not as neat of a story if we don't keep winning."

Pujols' home run, 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 National League Championship Series back to St. Louis for Game 6 tonight.

With Houston leading 3-2, Game 2 winner Roy Oswalt will pitch against Cardinals lefty Mark Mulder. 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.

"They're trying to catch us, we're not trying to catch them," Oswalt 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' mammoth three-run shot off All-Star closer Brad 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 and advance to the World Series, where they were swept by Boston.

"It is weird how we're back in the same position we were last year, but that's what makes it so much fun," St. Louis reliever Jason Isringhausen said.

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

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," Astros 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."

Despite being one strike from the World Series before David Eckstein's ninth-inning single started the rally in Game 5, the Astros didn't sound shaken on Tuesday. Players even jumped at the opportunity to needle Lidge about the prodigious drive he served up to Pujols.

"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," Oswalt said. "The mood on the plane was actually pretty cool."

The series winner heads to Chicago to begin the World Series on Saturday night against the American League 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 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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