The Houston Astros and St. Louis Cardinals had played a brilliant National League Championship Series in 2004, with the Cardinals coming out on top in seven games. It was so good that it was worth a sequel—and in this case, the sequel really was as good as the original.
Both teams had great pitching staffs, the best two in the National League. Chris Carpenter won the Cy Young Award with St. Louis, winning 21 games with a 2.83 ERA. He was backed up by 16-game winners in Mark Mulder and Jeff Suppan. And the back end of the rotation, Jason Marquis and Matt Morris, each had ERAs in the low 4s. Jason Isringhausen handled the ninth inning, with 39 saves and a 2.14 ERA.
Houston could counter with a real Big Three—Roy Oswalt was the horse of the staff, winning 20 games with a 2.94 ERA. And two former members of the New York Yankees’ great pitching staffs under Joe Torre, Andy Pettite and Roger Clemens were each on hand.
Pettite won 17 games and posted a 2.39 ERA, and while Clemens only won 13, his ERA was a dazzling 1.87. The bullpen was deep, with Dan Wheeler locking down the eighth inning and Brad Lidge closing 42 saves at the back end.
But St. Louis won 100 games and won the NL Central by 11 games over wild-card Houston because of a big difference in offense. The Cards were third in the National League in runs scored, led by Albert Pujols and his .330 batting average, 41 home runs and 117 RBIs.
Jim Edmonds hit 29 home runs, Reggie Sanders popped 21, while Larry Walker put up an on-base percentage of .384 and a slugging percentage of .502. The middle infielders, Mark Grudzielanek in second base and shortstop David Eckstein, each hit close to .300. A weakness in this lineup was nowhere to be found.
Houston had quality offensive players, but just lacked the depth of St. Louis. The Astros were led by 29-year-old first baseman Lance Berkman, with a .411 OBP/.524 slugging. Craig Biggio was 39-years-old at second base, but still hit 26 home runs. Jason Lane did the same.
But the key support piece to Berkman was third baseman Morgan Ensberg, with his .388/.557 line and 36 home runs. Veteran first baseman Jeff Bagwell, long one of the NL’s best hitters, was now a part-time player, but still had a .358 OBP.
While the Cardinals ran away with the division, the Astros had started 15-30 and didn’t reach .500 for good until July 19. But when Houston got going, they came barreling down the stretch and ended up with 89 wins. The Astros eliminated the Atlanta Braves in the Division Series round, while the Cards took care of the San Diego Padres. The NLCS Rematch was set.
Carpenter got the ball for Game 1 and everything looked ready to go to form. Sanders hit a two-run homer in the first, the Cardinals jumped Pettite for a 5-0 lead and they won without sweating, 5-3. Then things suddenly turned.
Oswalt was the difference-maker in Game 2. He threw seven sharp innings, and the top of the Houston order—Biggio, Willy Taveras and Berkman—all had two hits apiece and the Astros tied the series with a 4-1 win.
When the NLCS went to Houston for the middle three games, the Astros got the clutch hits and the Cardinals made the key mistakes—at least for two games and eight innings. Game 3 was tied 2-2 in the sixth, when Houston got a single from Michael Lamb, an RBI base hit from Lane, another single from Brad Ausmus and a productive out from young shortstop Adam Everett that scored a run. Houston won 4-3.
Game 4 was tied 1-1, and both managers, Tony LaRussa for St. Louis and Phil Garner for Houston, went to the bullpen early. LaRussa summoned Marquis, in the bullpen for the playoffs. He issued two walks, and then an error set up a sac fly from Ensberg. The 2-1 victory had the city of Houston ready for a party the next night in Game 5.
St. Louis led 2-1 in the seventh inning behind a strong outing from Carpenter. The ace was still in the mound, when Houston started coming. Biggio reached on an error and another base hit followed. Berkman came to the plate.
One day, six years later, Berkman would be a World Series hero in a Cardinal uniform. Tonight, he tormented his future team, with a line drive home run that put the Astros ahead 4-2 and six outs between them and the Series.
It was still 4-2 in the ninth and Lidge blew away the first two hitters. Eckstein singled and then Lidge walked Edmonds—a terrible blunder, allowing Pujols to come to the plate as the lead run.
What happened next is etched in the memory of anyone who saw it. To say Pujols unloaded on a pitch simply can’t do it justice. He blasted Lidge’s pitch out of the state of Texas. Minute Maid Field was completely silent and players said later the only sound you heard was Pujols’ feet hitting the ground as he trotted around the bases. Houston went quietly in the ninth, losing 5-4.
The Astros still led the series 3-2, but the Cardinals were riding higher than high. They were the team with the history of success, the Astros the one with the record of never making a World Series and it seemed like a given that St. Louis would go home, electrify their home fans and then set up a World Series battle with the Chicago White Sox that would surely be an intense regional conflict.
But someone never clued in Roy Oswalt in on the script. The Astros’ ace got the ball and showed he knew how to strip all the drama out of a moment. He simply dominated the Cardinal hitters, to the point they returned to the dugout early in the game with the conclusion that the only hope was to drive up the pitch count and get him out early. Beating him wasn’t going to happen, and he lasted seven strong innings.
Lane hit a solo home run, Houston chipped away and they won 5-1. The game itself might have been anti-climactic, but Oswalt’s brilliance, serving as the answer to Pujols’ incredible moment, provided the night all the magic it needed. Houston had a long-sought pennant. Oswalt was NLCS MVP. And Pujols made sure St. Louis would be remembered in defeat.