Rematch on tap: Astros ready for Cards

Rematch on tap: Astros ready for Cards

HOUSTON -- With champagne pouring down his face and bedlam all around him, Roger Clemens pushed his way to his boss Sunday and delivered a message:

"We're not done yet!"

"Big boy, I hope you're not done yet because we need you here," Houston general manager Tim Purpura yelled over the din. "Hollywood cannot script what we just saw."

Is a sequel in store this time for the underdog Astros?

After outlasting the Atlanta Braves on Sunday, the Astros earned the right to advance to the National League Championship Series for a rematch against the St. Louis Cardinals, who swept the Padres to advance.

In last year's NLCS, the home team won every game of a series that went the full seven games. Houston, coming off its first-ever postseason series win, dropped the final two games in St. Louis and had to watch from home as the Cardinals were swept by the Red Sox in the World Series.

Now the Astros have payback in mind.

"Our fans are fired up about getting the opportunity to go another round with the Cardinals," said Astros veteran Craig Biggio, who played all 18 innings of the team's 7-6 win on Sunday. "They've got a great team and we're going to have to do everything right to win. But we've got a shot at it, and there's only so many that we get."

Game 1 is set for St. Louis on Wednesday, when Andy Pettitte is expected to meet the Cardinals' Chris Carpenter.

But as the champagne flowed on Sunday, most Astros were not looking that far ahead.

"Right now, it's all about the celebration because this is unbelievable," said right-hander Brandon Backe, who is looking forward to a shot at redemption after allowing a key grand slam in Game 4 on Sunday. "It's 25 guys and one heartbeat -- every pitch, every out. Today showed how strong-willed we are."

The Cardinals can expect the Astros to arrive with a lot of confidence. Shut down through seven innings by Atlanta's Tim Hudson on Sunday at Minute Maid Park, Lance Berkman hit an eighth-inning grand slam and Brad Ausmus followed with a ninth-inning solo shot that forced extra innings.

Thanks to three big innings of relief from Clemens and an 18th-inning home run by Chris Burke, the Astros earned a rematch.

Can momentum carry over?

"A little of it can," said Berkman, who homered three times in last year's NLCS. "We know what we're going to get with those guys, and we're all anxious to get the NLCS underway."

When will he start thinking about the Cardinals?

"Right now," Berkman said. "Obviously, they're the best team in the National League this year and we've got our work cut out for us.

"If we win the World Series, I think people will be pretty surprised. But we've got some surprises left in us."

The Astros are likely set with Roy Oswalt on regular rest for Game 2 on Thursday, giving Clemens time to recover for a possible Game 3 on Saturday at Minute Maid Park. Then it's either Pettitte on short rest in Game 4 or Backe, who twirled eight scoreless innings to win Game 5 of last year's NLCS in Houston.

The Cardinals' rotation is a bit more uncertain because of left-hander Mark Mulder, who suffered a bruised upper left arm when he was struck by a Joe Randa line drive in Game 2 of the NLDS.

"Chris gets [Game] 1, and I think there's a real question where Mulder fits in," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said after the Cardinals clinched Saturday night. "It'll be a little different depending on whether it's Atlanta or Houston. There's a couple matchups there we like better one way than the other."

The Cardinals won the season series against the Astros, 11-5, but Houston won the last two games in St. Louis as the team marched to the NL Wild Card.

"You're talking about two teams that know each other really well," Ausmus said. "They're the best team in the National League -- no question. But you still have to play the games. It doesn't matter who it is; I just want to keep moving on."

And perhaps just as importantly, the Astros moved on with a win Sunday instead of heading back to Atlanta for a deciding Game 5.

"As much as some of these pitchers have thrown and as long as some of these position players stayed in the game, I think the two days off are going to be huge," Ausmus said.

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