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Baseball: NL playoffs

Cards cap comeback

St. Louis rallies to win the "other" series and sets a date with the Red Sox on Saturday.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO
Published October 22, 2004

ST. LOUIS - Even before Game 7 of the National League Championship Series between the Astros and Cardinals began, Houston manager Phil Garner called the matchup a success.

Not to take anything away from the epic battle between the Yankees and Red Sox, but the NLCS had a lot going for it too.

"There's been well-pitched games, terrific defense and great offense," Garner said. "It's had everything you could want. So if you're a Houston fan, your nerves are frazzled. If you're a St. Louis fan, your nerves are frazzled."

But if you're a Cardinals fan, you are breathing a sigh of relief today while Astros fans are crying in their coffee.

St. Louis' 5-2 victory Thursday night at Busch Stadium clinched the series four games to three, its 16th pennant, and first since 1987, and a spot in the World Series that begins Saturday at Boston.

"This is a dream come true," Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols said. "It won't be easy. They have a lot of good players over there. We have to be ready for them because they are going to be ready for us."

"It's going to be a blast," Cardinals centerfielder Jim Edmonds said. "Boston is a great town and they played so well against the Yankees."

The Cardinals, who had a majors-best 105 victories this season, finished off a series in which the home team won every game and in which they came back from Houston trailing three games to two.

The Cardinals did it by besting Roger Clemens with a three-run sixth inning that reversed a 2-1 deficit. And they got clutch pitching from starter Jeff Suppan, who came into the game 1-4 this season against the Astros but allowed one earned run in six innings on three hits with six strikeouts.

Third baseman Scott Rolen got the decisive blow, a two-out, two-run home run down the leftfield line that broke a 2-2 tie. But it was Pujols' run-scoring double in the previous at-bat that was as key as any hit he had in the NLCS and solidified his selection as the series MVP.

Pujols hit .500 (14-for-28) with four home runs and nine RBIs. So it was a bit surprising the Astros pitched to him with Roger Cedeno at second and first base open.

But Garner said Clemens wanted to pitch to him, and Pujols made him pay with a rope to the leftfield corner that tied the score.

"You see the ball and hit it like I always say," Pujols said.

"Roger's earned the right to put in his two cents worth in any of those decisions," Garner said. "We talked about whether we wanted to go ahead and walk Pujols and pitch to Rolen."

That was no bargain either as Rolen scorched Clemens' first pitch over the leftfield wall. It was his third home run of the series and the second of the game - Houston's Craig Biggio led off with one - to give the teams a playoff series record 25.

"I feel very proud of the way we played," Astros centerfielder Carlos Beltran said. "We left everything out there."

But it wasn't enough for a team that went 36-10 down the stretch to earn the wild card but is still without a World Series berth and is 1-8 in games in which it can clinch a playoff series.

Clemens held the spotlight as the game began. The future Hall of Famer had his precious four days' rest and made his 30th postseason start, fourth in a Game 7.

The right-hander was solid through five innings, consistently hitting 94 mph with his fastball. He even had a 2-0 lead in the third when Edmonds' throwing error allowed Beltran to score from third.

It was St. Louis' first error after a record 10-game stretch without one and came an inning after Edmonds robbed Brad Ausmus with a diving catch that saved a run.

Clemens went six innings and allowed four runs on six hits with two strikeouts before being lifted for a pinch-hitter.

Larry Walker's run-scoring single off Roy Oswalt added insurance in the eighth and St. Louis relievers Kiko Calero, Julian Tavarez and Jason Isringhausen pitched the final three innings without allowing a hit.

[Last modified October 22, 2004, 01:13:07]


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