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Astros' focus quickly shifts to Cards

Astros' focus quickly shifts to Cards

HOUSTON -- Minutes after the Houston Astros clinched the Division Series on an improbable walk-off homer by Chris Burke to cap an epic 18-inning win over the Braves on Sunday, Lance Berkman was asked when it will be time to start thinking about the St. Louis Cardinals.

"Right now," Berkman said. "I'm already thinking about it."

The Astros have a couple of days to catch up on much-needed rest before beginning the National League Championship Series at Busch Stadium on Wednesday. But it's likely those involved with the second round of the playoffs will have few other issues on their minds other than the Cardinals prior to the 7:19 p.m. CT start.

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"Our fans are fired up and it's great to have an opportunity to have another round with the Cardinals," Craig Biggio said. "They have a great team. We're going to have to do everything right in order to win.

"We have another chance, we have a shot at it. There's only so many that you get. Coming from where we've come from, and to have a chance at this again, it's pretty special."

The Astros-Cardinals series will be a rematch of last year's NLCS, which St. Louis won, 4-3. Each team won all of its home games, and the Cardinals, with home-field advantage, emerged as the winner.

The euphoria of Sunday's win is not enough to mask the reality of what awaits the Astros in St. Louis.

"They won 100 games, went to the World Series last year," general manager Tim Purpura said of the Cardinals. "We've got our work cut out for us. We don't take them lightly at all. They have an explosive offense, outstanding pitching, great defense.

"But that's what you do this time of year -- you don't play second-tier teams. It's going to be a battle. This [series] will probably go five, six, seven games."

The Cardinals won the season series over the Astros, 11-5, but the Astros won three of the final five meetings, all played in September.

Having played so well against St. Louis down the stretch -- all five games were decided by three or fewer runs -- gives the Astros confidence that they are a formidable match for a Cardinals team with seemingly few holes.

"This team is one of the most resilient teams I've ever been on," Mike Lamb said. "Whether we win or lose, the next day's a new day. The series with the Cardinals is a new series for us. Whatever the scenario is, whatever's gone on in the game, this team's going to keep battling. We know that. The Cardinals are going to be a tough challenge, no doubt, but this team has confidence in itself and we can play with them."

The Astros haven't formally announced their pitching rotation, but it's safe to speculate that Andy Pettitte will pitch Game 1 on Wednesday, followed by Roy Oswalt in Game 2 on Thursday, Roger Clemens for Game 3 on Saturday and Brandon Backe in Game 4 on Sunday.

Oswalt and Clemens were flip-flopped in order to give Clemens, who pitched three scoreless frames in a winning effort Sunday, an extra day to rest. Oswalt started Game 3 of the Division Series last Saturday and will make his first NLCS start on normal rest.

Game 4 will move to 6:30 p.m. CT on Oct. 16 if ALCS is over on Oct. 15. Game 6, if necessary, will move to 7 p.m. CT on Oct. 19 if ALCS is over on or before Oct. 18.

The only lingering issue may be Pettitte's health status. He left the clubhouse just as the celebration began following Sunday's game after coming down with a touch of the flu, but the left-hander threw his normal bullpen session at Minute Maid Park on Monday and said he felt much better.

"He's still under the weather, but it's nothing to be concerned about," Purpura said. "I'm not anticipating any issues at all."

Pettitte was slated to pitch Game 5 of the Division Series in Atlanta on Monday had the Astros lost Game 4, but the club was worried that the flu would have prevented Pettitte from starting that game.

Left-hander Wandy Rodriguez, who threw one inning of Sunday's 18-inning "doubleheader," likely would have started Game 5.

"I was thinking about winning the game," Purpura said of his mindset during Sunday's marathon, "but I also was thinking, what the heck are we going to do if we don't win this game? If [Pettitte is] sick, I have no idea what we would have done. These things have a way of working themselves out."

The Astros, 15 games under the .500 mark at 15-30 on May 24, are now one of two teams in the National League still playing. Critics give the edge to the Cardinals, but the Astros have a different mindset.

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

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

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