Astros' 20-game winner struggles to find form in Game 4

Monday, October 18, 2004

HOUSTON -- Roy Oswalt was one worry the Houston Astros hadn't counted on against the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL championship series.

The league's only 20-game winner. Two wins in two decisions with a 2.25 ERA in three starts against the Cardinals. Clinching win over Atlanta in Game 5 of the division series last Monday.

Who better to try to even the NLCS at two games apiece?

It didn't happen that way. Houston won 6-5, but it was despite Oswalt, who struggled from the very start.

"We felt like we had an outstanding chance to even the series at two," said Houston's Lance Berkman, who homered in the fifth. "Fortunately, we were able to get it done."

No thanks to Oswalt.

Minutes before the first pitch, Oswalt was greeted to a standing ovation from thousands of towel-waving Astros fans. He walked slowly to the dugout, waving to the crowd with a grin forming on his lips.

That was pretty much the only highlight of Oswalt's afternoon.

Early in the first inning, Oswalt twirled around and stared at third base umpire Tim Welke after a checked swing by Larry Walker was called a ball. Walker walked on the next pitch, and Albert Pujols followed with a two-run shot that just cleared the left-field fence.

John Mabry's RBI single gave the Cardinals a 3-0 lead later in the inning, and Oswalt already had the look of a beaten man.

"I wasn't at my best. It was just a physical thing," Oswalt said. "I was just battling the whole time."

Jim Edmonds' sacrifice fly to right scored Pujols in the third and Pujols singled in Tony Womack in the fourth to give St. Louis a 5-3 lead.

Oswalt was clearly frustrated, wiping at his sweaty brow after almost every pitch and shooting exasperated looks at the dugout after giving up hits.

He left the mound after six innings, with the game tied at 5 and more than a few anxious fans in Minute Maid Park as Houston turned over the game to its unreliable bullpen.

Oswalt allowed eight hits, walked four and didn't record a strikeout for the first time since July 29, 2003, at Atlanta. It was only the third time in his career that had happened.

"I knew if I could just keep the game close, we had a chance," Oswalt said. "Anytime you can get into the bullpen, you've got a good chance of coming back -- especially with this team."

Carlos Beltran came to the Astros' rescue again, this time in the seventh with his record-tying eighth home run of the postseason. His solo shot off St. Louis reliever Julian Tavarez gave Houston its first -- and only -- lead of the game.

The Astros' bullpen even came through this time, getting a scoreless seventh from Dan Wheeler and two innings from Brad Lidge for the second straight day.

With Oswalt struggling when they needed him most, almost everything else went right for the Astros in Game 4.

"There's so many times that he's picked us up over the year," Houston's Craig Biggio said. "Some days you're going to have to score some runs. He gave us an opportunity to win today."

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