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Oswalt, Lidge combine to stifle Cards

Oswalt, Lidge combine to stifle Cards

ST. LOUIS -- When the Astros needed a big boost on Thursday night, Roy Oswalt and Brad Lidge gave it to them, holding the Cardinals to six hits as they sealed Game 2 of the National League Championship Series, 4-1.

The effort evened the best-of-seven series at 1-1 with the next three games at Minute Maid Park, where the Astros dominated opponents this year, winning 53 regular-season games and both home games in the first round against the Braves. They also didn't lose any of their three home games last postseason to the defending NL champions.

"I've pitched a lot of games that counted," Oswalt said. "It was a key game, that's for sure. To leave here with a split and go home for three games, that was big."

The win on Thursday night was Houston's first at Busch Stadium in the last two postseasons and the first NLCS win during that span on the road by either team. The Cardinals had won eight straight playoff games at home against NL opposition, including all four games against the Astros last October to win the series and the pennant in seven games.

Oswalt pitched seven innings to earn the win, allowing five hits and one run -- a sixth-inning homer by Cards slugger Albert Pujols. Lidge then did what he usually does best, shut down the Cardinals in a rare two-inning save. This time, he faced seven batters, whiffing three of them and allowing only a scant single. Add Oswalt's six strikeouts, and the pair struck out nine St. Louis batters on the evening.

Lidge, 28, hasn't allowed a run to St. Louis since May 29, 2003, long before he became Houston's closer. He let up three that day in a 7-4 victory, but has been dominant since.

The Cardinals are scoreless against the hard-throwing right-hander, with only one hit in 10 innings during his five playoff appearances against them the last two seasons. This past regular season against the Cards, Lidge didn't allow a run in 7 2/3 innings as he earned four of his 42 saves in seven appearances.

Asked to explain his dominance over the Cardinals, Lidge said it's just been a matter of rising to the occasion against a team that has blistered the Astros in the NL Central the last two seasons.

"They have great hitters and I always say, there's something about them that brings out the best in you," he said. "When you're facing as many dangerous hitters as they have, you have to be on your 'A' game. It worked tonight, but we still have a few more games against these guys and I have to keep bringing my 'A' game out there."

The Astros had Oswalt squeezed between Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens as the Game 2 starter and needed a standout performance after Pettitte was touched for five runs on eight hits during the first six innings of Wednesday's 5-3 loss. The performance came after Pettitte was smoked in the right knee by an Oswalt line drive during batting practice.

Oswalt is the only Major League pitcher to record back-to-back 20-win seasons the last two years, and he's beginning to build his own playoff resume: a 3-0 record, including victories this postseason over the Braves in the NL Division Series and the Cardinals on Thursday night.

"What you saw is not unusual for Roy to have that kind of game," Astros manager Phil Garner said. "Of course, this is a big stage. About as big as they get. And you know how much trouble we've had winning games in this ballpark. Boy, he stepped up large for us and took control of the ballgame, just absolutely dominated the game."

The 28-year-old right-hander threw like a pitcher who was 19-9 in 2002, 20-10 in 2004 and 20-12 this season.

Mixing his fastball with a curve and slider, Oswalt kept the Cardinals off balance, even though they had their chances to break through against him on several occasions.

"We actually had three or four chances with some of our best RBI guys up there and he made the pitches," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "So you take your hat off to him."

Most noteworthy, they had runners on first and second with two out in the fifth and Jim Edmonds hitting when a 2-and-2 slider that appeared to have caught the plate was called a ball by umpire Greg Gibson. Another pitcher might have lost his composure, but Oswalt came back to ring up a stunned Edmonds on the same pitch.

"Yeah, it might have rattled some pitchers, but it didn't rattle Roy," Garner said. "I thought he was as composed as I've ever seen him. He was locked in."

In the sixth, after Pujols led off with a 438-foot homer to left-center to make it 2-1 Houston, Oswalt retired the next three batters, giving Garner the confidence to send him out again in the seventh.

"That was the key moment," Garner said. "He makes a mistake to Pujols and Albert just hammers it. That could have been the point where the game might have gone either way. But I liked Roy's attitude. He just came right back and threw strikes. His mental discipline right there was excellent."

Finally in the seventh with one out, Yadier Molina ripped a ground-rule double to left-center and pinch-hitter John Rodriguez walked. Left-hander Mike Gallo was heating up in the bullpen and Oswalt seemed ready to be taken out. But Garner kept him in and was rewarded when David Eckstein flied to center and Edmonds grounded to first.

Trouble over, Oswalt showed rare emotion, pumping his fist as he hopped off the mound. He had thrown 107 pitches, 75 of them for strikes, and deserved the relief.

"They could have blown it open with a base hit," Oswalt said. "I was able to make quality pitches at the time I needed it. I was pretty pumped up."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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