The 2004 National League Championship Series: An Underrated Epic

When you think of the 2004 baseball season, especially its postseason, what usually comes to mind is the historic comeback the Boston Red Sox put on against the New York Yankees in the American League Championship Series, en route to Boston’s first World Series title in 86 years. What’s often overshadowed is what an epic battle took place on the National League side that same year. Let’s look back on the 2004 National League Championship Series, as the St. Louis Cardinals and Houston Astros stretched it to the limit.

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The Cardinals were the odds-on favorite, having won 105 games and run away with the NL Central. St. Louis had the most potent offense in the National League.

Albert Pujols hit 46 home runs and had an on-base percentage of .415. Scott Rolen hit 34 homers, while Jim Edmonds went deep 42 times, each of them also having an OBP in excess of .400. St. Louis then went out and added former batting champ and MVP Larry Walker.

St. Louis’ pitching was an underrated part of their success. The club’s current manager, Mike Matheny, was then behind the plate, and handled a pitching staff where four starting pitchers won at least 15 games, with Chris Carpenter and Jason Marquis leading the way. Jason Isringhausen handled the back end, with 47 saves and the Cards had the second-best ERA in the NL.

It took the Astros longer to get started, and they were playing .500 baseball near the All-Star break, when a managerial change brought in feisty Phil Garner. Houston took off, went 48-26 the rest of the way and got the NL wild-card spot. Their pitching wasn’t as deep as St. Louis, but there was more star power at the top, in Cy Young Award winner Roger Clemens, 20-game winner Roy Oswalt, and former (and future) Yankee Andy Pettite.

Houston’s lineup had been known for the better part of a decade for the “Killer B’s”, of Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman and Craig Biggio. All had productive years again in 2004, and they were augmented with the addition of another “B”, in Carlos Beltran. The young centerfielder posted a .368 OBP, a .559 slugging and joined second baseman Jeff Kent in giving the offense a needed lift.

The Division Series round had forced Houston the full five games with the Atlanta Braves, and their pitching rotation was out of whack, while St. Louis, having dispensed with the Los Angeles Dodgers in four games, was lined up clean. It proved to be a decisive edge in the series opening segment.

St. Louis hammered Houston’s #4 starter, Brandon Backe, for six runs in the sixth inning of Game 1, with Walker’s three hits leading the way in a 10-7 win. The next night, Peter Munro was a little more effective for Houston, but the game was still tied 4-4 in the eighth. Pujols and Rolen then hit back-to-back home runs and the Cardinals looked in command, with a 2-0 series lead heading down to Houston.

Clemens got the ball in Game 3 as the NLCS returned to Houston for the first time since another epic battle, one they’d fought with the New York Mets back in 1986. The Astros scored three times in the first, Clemens went seven strong innings and Houston got back in the series with a 5-2 win.

Game 4 saw St. Louis as the team that got out to a 3-0 lead early, but Houston crawled all the way back to tie it 5-5 by the seventh. Beltran, who would hit four home runs in this series in preparation for his impending free agency, went deep to give Houston a 6-5 lead that stood up and now the series was tied.

Backe was on the mound for Game 5, and the Houston starter was considerably better than in the series opener. He and Woody Williams put on a scoreless pitcher’s duel. In the ninth, Beltran singled and stole second. After an intentional walk, Kent continued the drama and hit a three-run walkoff shot. The Astros had completely reversed the series and took a 3-2 lead as we returned to St. Louis.

If you thought we had seen enough drama, you were wrong. St. Louis held a 6-4 lead in Game 6, with Isringhausen on the mound in the ninth, were poised to force a Game 7. Instead, the Astros tied the game. Neither team threatened for two more full innings, then Edmonds took matters into his own hands with a walkoff home run in the 12th.

As the 2004 National League Championship Series went to Game 7, we had seen four of the first six games decided by a tiebreaking home run in the seventh inning or later. It would be stretching it to say the seventh game lived up to that standard, but it was a pretty good championship baseball game under any circumstances.

The Astros had a 2-1 lead in the sixth, and with Clemens on the mound, St. Louis fans had reason to be nervous. The Cardinals had two outs with a runner on third, when Pujols doubled to tie the game. Rolen then followed with a big home run that made it 4-2. Houston never threatened again, St. Louis added an insurance run and clinched the National League pennant with a 5-2 victory.

Pujols hit .500 for the series and popped four home runs. Between that, and his Game 7 double being perhaps the most significant hit in an NLCS filled with them, he was named series MVP. Beltran’s four home runs and .417 average have lived on in baseball lore.

And the 2004 National League Championship Series needs to live on in baseball lore. It didn’t produce the eventual champion, which always hurts a legacy, but when it came to pure drama, the great Cardinals-Astros battle deserves to be on the list of the greatest LCS battles ever played.