NL Wild Card belongs to Astros

NL Wild Card belongs to Astros

HOUSTON -- Nothing has come easy to the Houston Astros this year. It seemed like every game was a nail-biter, one where there was no margin for error, especially by a starting pitcher.

So why should the most important game of the year, and the final game of the regular season, be any different?

All weekend, the Astros could have used help from the Washington Nationals in their pursuit of a playoff berth. And all weekend, the Nationals lost, and lost, and lost to the Phillies. The Astros, however, did get a boost from Cubs shortstop Neifi Perez, whose sixth-inning error led to a two-run frame and lifted the Astros to a 6-4 win Sunday.

In front of a frenzied 42,288 fans, the Astros captured their second consecutive NL Wild Card title, on the very last day of the regular season -- just like last year -- to set up an NLDS matchup with the Braves beginning Wednesday in Atlanta.

"We have not had games that are blowouts, where everybody's just cruising," Morgan Ensberg said. "That's the way you want to play. You want to blow teams out and you want to make really boring games. But for whatever reason, we don't do that and we haven't done it all year."

Without a doubt, these Astros, while frustrating at times, are never boring. Sunday was another stomach-churning type of day for those in uniform, in the front office, in the stands and watching on television, wondering if the Astros were going to wrap this thing up at home, in the friendly confines of Minute Maid Park, or have to travel to Philadelphia for a one-game playoff with the Phils.

The Astros arrived at the clubhouse Sunday morning with their bags packed, praying they would not have to board a plane after this game's conclusion.

"Thank God it's over," Brad Ausmus said. "We've been playing in a playoff atmosphere for months, it seems like. Or at least, the last month. It's nice that it's over, it's nice that we won, it's even nicer that we don't have to go to Philadelphia."

For a while in the middle innings, it looked like there was a chance this wasn't going to have a nice storybook ending. While the out-of-town scoreboard revealed that the Phillies, again, were piling on the Nationals, the Cubs blooped and dinked their way to a 4-3 lead.

Michael Barrett's solo homer off Roy Oswalt in the fifth cut into what was a 3-0 Houston lead, and the advantage shrunk further when Matt Murton singled to third and moved to third on Perez's single through the hole at second. It looked like Oswalt was going to get out of this jam when Greg Maddux grounded back to the mound to start a 1-6-3 double play, but Corey Patterson's bloop double to left narrowed the advantage to 3-2.

The Cubs logged three consecutive base hits in the sixth, including an RBI single by Barrett that tied the game at 3. Perez's single to right put the Cubs ahead by a run.

The deficit, however, was short-lived. Jason Lane, who was kicking himself for an off-line throw that allowed Jeromy Burnitz to score the go-ahead run, homered off Maddux to lead off the sixth.

"I felt I could have made that play there [on Burnitz] and they may not have scored that inning," Lane said. "I was frustrated, but I just let it go. I knew there wasn't anything I could do about it. I just tried to have a good solid at-bat to lead the next inning off. Things worked out great, got us going. Guys behind me got on base and we made stuff happen."

The inning continued with Adam Everett's single to left. This brought to the plate Jeff Bagwell, who was set to make his 14th plate appearance as a pinch-hitter.

Bagwell knocked a slow grounder to short, but Perez's throw sailed past second baseman Jose Macias and skidded to foul territory in right. This allowed Everett to score and Bagwell to reach third.

With Craig Biggio at the plate, Cub reliever Michael Wuertz threw a wild pitch, allowing pinch-runner Charles Gipson to score easily.

The rest of the game went like clockwork, for the most part. Chad Qualls and Dan Wheeler were perfect in the seventh and eighth, and Brad Lidge logged his 42nd save, despite allowing a leadoff single to Murton and facing an extra challenge because of an Eric Bruntlett error.

Todd Walker grounded to short, but Bruntlett, subbing for Biggio at second, dropped the ball. Order was restored when Patterson grounded to short and Macias lined out to Bruntlett, who this time kept two hands on the ball.

Whew.

"It wasn't easy," manager Phil Garner said. "If I don't have to see the Cubs again for a while, I'll be glad. I don't know why they're not playing for the world championship, because they played good in the last two games. They certainly didn't lay down, let's put it that way."

Lost in the shuffle of Wild Card mania is the fact that Oswalt (20-12) logged his 20th win, becoming just the second pitcher in Houston franchise history to record back-to-back 20-win seasons. Joe Niekro was 21-11 in 1979 and 20-12 in 1980.

"To get 20 is great, but to get to the playoffs is more," Oswalt said. "It didn't really matter if I got the win or not, as long as the team got the win."

The Astros ended the regular season with 89 wins, a far cry from the 15 they had after the first 45 games.

"I just remember thinking, I know we're not this bad," Wheeler said. "I'm glad that we proved that we're not. We fought through it and we're here. I still can't believe it.

"It's something I never thought would happen, but we took it step by step ... let's win this series, then the next series. And now we're here, Wild Card champs. How amazing is that?"

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.