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Astros drop opener to Cardinals

Astros drop NLCS opener to Cards

ST. LOUIS -- Andy Pettitte had absolutely no reaction when Roy Oswalt's batted ball hit the inside of his right knee during batting practice, so no one thought much of it when the game started.

But as time progressed, Pettitte's knee swelled, which may have contributed to a very un-Pettitte-like outing in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series on Wednesday. The undisputed staff ace through the second half of the season, the left-hander allowed five runs in Houston's 5-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals before 52,332 fans at Busch Stadium.

The mishap occurred when Pettitte was taking a routine trip around the bases. The ball hit him squarely on the inside of his knee as he was rounding third, but the left-hander continued on with his routine as if it hadn't happened.

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But he was clearly not himself when he took the mound to begin Game 1. Having allowed only eight runs over seven starts in September -- and considering how well he pitched in Game 1 of the Division Series against the Braves -- a swollen knee is one logical explanation why Pettitte was suddently so ineffective at such an inopportune time.

Pettitte didn't want to use the knee as an excuse, so he offered this explanation: simply put, he just wasn't very good.

"I got hit and we took care of it, did what we could to help me with it," Pettitte said. "I felt good going out there. But I was terrible. I never got in a good rhythm at all throughout the six innings I threw. I gave them two runs in the first inning making extremely bad pitches. I'm just extremely disappointed in starting off the series and the game like that."

The Cardinals built a 5-0 lead, beginning with Reggie Sanders' two-run homer off Pettitte in the first frame. In the second, Mark Grudzielanek led off with a single to center and moved to third on Abraham Nunez's base hit to left, and Chris Carpenter pushed a bunt out of reach a few feet toward the mound, allowing Nunez to score on the squeeze play.

The lead increased to five in the fifth behind an RBI single by David Eckstein and a two-out run-scoring base hit by Albert Pujols.

Pettitte, previously 5-0 in his last six LCS starts, hadn't lost a start in the second round since 1998. He took his share of the blame on Wednesday, but his teammates didn't exactly help him out, either. They produced six baserunners over two innings and came away with nothing.

The Astros loaded the bases in the third with one out after Carpenter issued walks to Craig Biggio and Willy Taveras, but No. 3 hitter Lance Berkman swung at the first pitch and ended the inning. The ball was hit well, but it sailed squarely in the direction of second baseman Grudzielanek, who began the 4-6-3 double play.

Berkman had no regrets about swinging at what he deciphered as a very hittable pitch.

"What are you going to do? Let him throw one down the middle and be 0-1?" Berkman said. "I'm not looking to walk in that situation. I'm looking to drive some guys in. I got a good pitch to hit and hit it hard. I did my job as far as that goes, it just didn't fall my way.

"You can't steer the ball after you hit it. Many times after at-bats like that you think, 'I should have done this, I should have done that.' But I wouldn't change a single thing, other than I wish the guy wasn't standing right there."

Manager Phil Garner had no qualms about Berkman's aggressiveness, either.

"You've got the bases loaded," Garner said. "You've got a guy who has good control, a guy who's going to try to throw the ball over the plate. You're going to try to get a hit. He got a pitch to hit and he whacked it."

Which is what Garner expects from his best hitter.

"You've got [Berkman] up there to drive in a run," Garner said. "I don't want him looking for a walk. I want him swinging a bat in that situation. He hit it hard. Grudzielanek made a nice play on it."

Chances were slim that the Astros were going to produce baserunners at this pace throughout Carpenter's outing, so it's not surprising that the right-hander cruised through the fifth and sixth. It wasn't until the seventh when the Astros, down 5-0, showed life in the form of a base hit by adam Adam Everett and Chris Burke's homer, his second in as many at-bats.

"If you're going to get a guy like Carpenter, you've got to get him early," Garner said. "When we didn't put any runs on the board in the third or fourth inning, he got back in a groove. We never put anything together after that."

The Astros threatened in the ninth. Closer Jason Isringhausen yielded a leadoff hit to Mike Lamb, and after Jason Lane struck out on a called third strike, Everett bounced a hit toward the hole at short.

Eckstein dove and made an off-kilter throw to second in an effort to erase Lamb at second, but the ball skidded past Grudzielanek, allowing Lamb to move to third and Everett to second.

Brad Ausmus lifted a sac fly to center, scoring Lamb, but pinch-hitter Jose Vizcaino grounded to first to end the game.

"We ran the tying at-bat out there in the ninth inning," Biggio said. "That says a lot about the character of the guys on this club. The guys in here are not going to give up."

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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