Champagne on Hold: Game 5 of the NLCS

It wasn’t Bobby Thomson. After all, Thomson’s homer ended the game; it took place at home; and most crucially of all, it put Thomson’s team into the World Series.

Albert Pujols did none of that last night. All he did was make a 3-1 series 3-2. Bobby Thomson it was not.

But it may have been Dave Henderson. Henderson, you recall, played for the Red Sox in ’86 when they entered the top of the ninth losing 4-2 in Game 5 of the league championship series. With his team one strike from elimination, he hit a two-run jack that gave the Sox the lead and, after heading home for Games 6 and 7, the series.

The Cards still have a ways to go before they match that, but even if they fall on their faces in Busch, Albert Pujols’ home run may well stand as the most shocking turn of events I’ve ever seen in a game – more shocking, I think, than the Bill Buckner Game, or the Francisco Cabrera Game, or even that blessedly crazy game they played just over a week ago.

Consider the circumstances conspiring against a Cardinals’ victory. The Astros were one out, one strike from a loss. They’d lost only one game in three years in which they led by at least two runs after the eighth inning. And their ace closer, the most dominant pitcher in baseball, was on the mound. I mean that. There are some crazy powerful pitchers out there: Clemens, Prior, Santana, Big Unit. But I can think of only two who, more often than not, make the other team look like a high school JV squad – Eric Gagne and Brad Lidge. And that’s how Lidge started the ninth last night. He made the Cards’ first two hitters look flat silly, carving up John Rodriguez and John Mabry on an impossible mix of sliders and fastballs. If the grounds crew had come out at that moment and stenciled a World Series logo onto the Minute Maid turf, I don’t think anyone would have blinked an eye.

But in the next five minutes, everything changed. First Eckstein slapped a tough pitch into left for a single. Then Edmonds drew a patient, five-pitch walk. And then the blow by Pujols, a no-doubter deep onto the train tracks. It was an instantly classic moment – baseball’s best closer against its best hitter, mano a mano, with Pujols coming out ahead.

Give Pujols all the credit in the world for what he did – he found a hanging slider and knew exactly what to do with it. (All you have to do is watch a Home Run Derby to realize that it’s not easy to go yard, even when you’re handed meat.) But you gotta wonder about Lidge’s pitch selection in that circumstance. Thom Brennaman, the color man for Fox, said before the at-bat that if he were Lidge he’d throw nothing but breaking balls to Pujols – after all, Albert is the deadliest fastball hitter in the league. Also, Lidge didn’t have great command of his heater (he seemed over-amped, missing well inside on the two fastballs he threw to Edmonds).

But the man can hit triple digits on the radar gun. You gotta throw a fastball 0-1 to Pujols, even if you waste it outside, for no other reason than to keep him honest. When Lidge threw a slider to Pujols on his first offering, he indicated that he only had faith in his breaking pitch. When he came back with it on the next delivery, Albert – one of the best adjusters in all of baseball – was sitting on it dead red. This is all 20/20 hindsight of course, but if Lidge mixes it up there, he gives Pujols a lot more to think about.

I’ll discuss this later, but the two roundhouse punches landed by the game’s two heavyweights – Pujols and Berkman – were set up, in part, by the failings of the opposing pitcher.

The Astros, of course, had been in this situation before. 1980 NLCS, Game 4, Astros led by two in Houston going into the top of the 8th. Dave Smith gave up three runs to the Phils and the Stros eventually fell in extras. Same deal the next night: they’re up 4-2 heading into the 8th (the same score in the Angels-Red Sox game, same score as tonight), with Nolan Ryan, the best flamethrower of all time, asked to hold the lead. The Phillies erupted for five runs and once again, the Astros lost in extra frames. That’s just excruciating.

The Cardinals had also been in this situation before. The year was 2002. Just like this year, the Cards had swept through the first round of the playoffs, and they were playing the wild-card team, down 3-1 on the road. Just like this year, Scott Rolen was out for the playoffs after colliding with an opponent. And just like this year, the Redbirds were miserable in the NLCS with runners in scoring position (3-for-39 that year, 5-for-32 going into Pujols’ at bat). However, in ’02 the Cards never got the huge hit they needed (nor, for that matter, did they get any huge ones in ‘04 off the Red Sox). Tonight they did.

It’s strange – one of the worries that preoccupied St. Louisans this year was that Pujols was pressing too much, that he had lost his ungodly clutch-hitting abilities. You might want to chalk this up to Card fans who had a double-digit lead in the standings and had nothing better to worry about, but it’s true that Albert seemed to over-swing with the game on the line, as if, in the absence of Rolen (and often Edmonds and Walker too), he was trying too hard to be the hero. In late inning, pressure situations, for example, he hit a pedestrian .250, with far worse on-base and power numbers than usual. And I can think of at least two games off the top of my head where he hit into a game-ending DP with the tying and winning runs on base in the bottom of the ninth.

For most of last night’s game, it seemed as if Pujols was pressing once again. He came up twice with two on and nobody out and failed to even advance the runners. By the third time he came up with the Killer E’s (Eckstein and Edmonds) on base, he was ready. With that one blow, the Cards’ chance of winning increased from 3.4% to 82.9%—a full .795 expected wins. Yes, there were other moments in the game that loomed large in retrospect (particularly the fantastic behind-the-back tag of Jason Lane by Yady Molina in the second). But really – a .795 turnaround on one play. It’s hard to have a more significant moment than that.

It’s incredibly tacky to bring this up, but isn’t last night’s Lidge-Pujols matchup the exact reason why Phil Cuzzi’s flubbed ball-strike call on Sunday was such a disgrace? Cuzzi, you remember, called strike two on Jim Edmonds in the eighth inning of Game 4, with the Cards trailing the Astros by a run. Replays showed the pitch high and inside by a comfortable margin, and properly should have been called ball four.

There are countless reasons to believe the Astros would have won that game even if Edmonds had walked there, but it would have been fun to find out. You’d have had two on, two out, Pujols up, Lidge into the game, in a pivotal Game 4. Even if Lidge blows him away in that hypothetical situation (actually Pujols singled off Lidge leading off the 9th on Sunday), it would have served as a nice backdrop to last night’s showdown, and it’s a shame Phil Cuzzi made himself the real drama of that game.

Andy Pettitte pitched well enough for Houston to win, bulldogging his way through six plus innings. He wasn’t razor sharp, though, mostly because of a torturous 33-pitch third that seemed to sap him of his command. Entering that inning he’d thrown 17 straight strikes; afterwards he’d lost velocity and location, even if the Cards didn’t do much to make him pay for it.

Chris Carpenter seemed to be heading in the opposite direction. He was a bit shaky early, especially in the second, when he gave up a double to Ausmus and made a bad mistake to Biggio with two outs to score a run (Molina was set up outside, and Carp left a curve ball over the fat part of the plate).

After that misstep, however, Carpenter ratcheted into high gear. The Astros were taking some good at-bats against him, but Carpenter was able to reach down for something extra when he needed to, dialing it up to 96 on the radar and dismantling Ensberg and Lamb with wicked two-seam fastballs to end the fifth.

But you wonder if he expended too much energy by the time the seventh rolled around. The key at-bat, of course, came against Lance Berkman in the bottom of the seventh. After Chris Burke singled to make it first and third with one out, I wrote “Pull Carp” in my game notes. I can see why La Russa left him in – Carpenter had only given up one run so far; the hit by Burke wasn’t hit very hard and the other runner had reached on an error. Plus Carpenter – who was already at pitch 110 – had done pretty well this year late in the game (a ridiculous opposition line of .125/.150/.186 in forty plate appearances after pitch #105).

But still – 110 pitches is 110 pitches, and this wasn’t some game in mid-June against the Pirates. This was October, against Lance Berkman, in the 264th inning Carpenter had thrown all year. What’s more, Carp went to 3-2 on Burke, lost him on a ball that caught too much of the plate, and was visibly panting afterwards. Berkman was seeing Carpenter well all night long (the only out he made was on a ball he tagged hard to center), and it made sense to bring in Randy Flores – a lefty strikeout pitcher who’s been tough on the Astros all year and could turn Berkman around (Berkman’s slugging percentage drops about 130 points when he has to bat right-handed).

No doubt Carpenter was gassed, and just in case Berkman’s short 338-foot homer didn’t convince you, Ensberg’s next hit – a ringing shot off the leftfield wall – should have.

People wonder why La Russa’s teams do so well in the regular season but sink in the playoffs. I think the decision to stick with Carpenter last night is a case in point. Big games seem to trigger some panicky reflex in TLR, where he gets too paranoid to trust his roster. He did it in the 2002 NLCS when he let Matt Morris hit for himself in the ninth inning of a tie game with no one on base, and he did it last night by failing to trust his bullpen with Carpenter on the ropes.

I mean, yes, the Cards’ pen has struggled a bit this series, and no way their relievers can match Houston’s, even after Lidge’s hanging slider. But let’s not overdo it – St. Louis’ bullpen had the best ERA in the league this year, and a 2.53 ERA in this series despite their mishaps. If you’re La Russa, you gotta trust your relievers enough to spell Carpenter in the seventh. And only Pujols’ homer will keep people from second-guessing that.

No doubt someone is out there right now writing the Astros’ obituary. And sure, it can’t feel good for the team to hop on a plane, travel back to St. Louis, and dwell on a World Series berth that was so tantalizingly within reach. But the idea that the Astros are dead is, as they say in Texas, bullroar.

They still have two of the five best starters in baseball going for them in Games 6 and (if necessary) Game 7. They’re still up three games to two (historically teams have won 63% of all series – with a record of 27-16 – when leading 3-2 on the road). And I’m fairly certain that Pujols’ home run won’t douse the Astros’ motivation to win any more than Jeff Kent’s home run doused the Cardinals after Game 5 of last year’s NLCS.

But if nothing else, we have a real series now. A win for the Astros last night would have been great for the city of Houston, but not so good for the game of baseball. After all, five-game series in both the NL and AL championship series would have been pretty boring. Last night’s classic ensures that the NLCS will be anything but.

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