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Astros take command in NLCS

Astros take 2-1 lead in NLCS

HOUSTON -- As has been the case for much of the postseason, Phil Garner's strategic decisions, however unconventional, worked in the Houston Astros' favor on Saturday.

Garner put a young, hot hitter at a position he's played only once before this season. He flip-flopped his catcher and shortstop at the bottom of the batting order. And his seventh-inning pitcher was doing so well, he kept him in there for the eighth, too.

Including a gutsy performance by Roger Clemens, it all added up to a 4-3 win over the St. Louis Cardinals, giving the Astros a 2-1 edge in the best-of-seven National League Championship Series.

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Garner had a dicey decision to make prior to this game. He wanted to start Chris Burke, the Astros' best offensive player of late, but not at the expense of Mike Lamb, who had three homers in 14 at-bats against Cardinals righty Matt Morris.

So Garner played them both, inserting Burke at the relatively foreign territory in center field. The rookie was 1-for-4, but the big payoff was Lamb, who was 2-for-4 with a two-run homer off Morris that gave the Astros a 2-0 lead in the fourth inning.

"It turns out to be really big," Garner said of Lamb and Burke's recent contributions, "because Morgan [Ensberg] and Lance [Berkman] haven't really done anything. When you have someone else pick up the slack, it's big."

Lamb played a role in the Astros' tie-breaking two-run sixth. He knocked a towering fly ball to the deepest part of the ballpark in center field, and as Jim Edmonds ran up Tal's Hill, Lamb manuevered himself easily into second for a double. Jason Lane, mired in a 1-for-17 slump, singled to right, scoring Lamb and giving the Astros a 3-2 lead.

Brad Ausmus followed with a single to right, moving Lane to third -- but it cost the Cardinals third baseman Abraham Nunez.

Nunez, retrieving a throw from Larry Walker, was right in the line of fire, forcing Lane to slide into the third baseman. Nunez left the game with an injury to his left quad.

"I saw him coming into me, so I just tried to get down and get underneath him and get to the base," Lane said. "As I went by, I clipped his leg and broke up the play. I felt like I maybe charley-horsed him when we collided. Hopefully, it's not too bad. The throw just brought him into the line a little bit."

Nunez's replacement, Hector Luna, factored into the Astros' next scoring push. Adam Everett, after not getting the bunt down in a squeeze attempt, lined a grounder down the third-base line. Lane dashed home, scoring easiy when Luna's throw landed nowhere near Yadier Molina and sailed to the backstop.

The two-run frame put Clemens in line for the win. The Rocket threw 97 pitches over six innings, holding the Cardinals to two runs while recording an uncharacterisically low one strikeout.

He allowed five hits in the fifth and sixth, and catcher Ausmus suspected that might have had an effect on Clemens' stamina.

"We had men on base and we were grinding real hard to get out of it," Ausmus said. "I think it just kind of gassed him. He didn't labor early at all. He was sharp."

Said Clemens: "I was trying to stay extremely tall and violent on the mound so my stuff was moving well. I think the biggest problem is that I was able to get loose and heated up a little sooner than I expected, with all the [pregame] intros and everything, I just had to back off a couple times and slow down, because I got warm fast.

"Other than that, it was just a couple cramps here and there, driving the ball off, and I was able to work my way through them."

With Clemens done after six, the remaining three frames were handed to relievers Chad Qualls and Brad Lidge.

Qualls is normally the seventh-inning setup man to Dan Wheeler's eighth, but Qualls threw so well in his first inning of work that Garner stuck with him. In the eighth, Qualls faced the meat of the Cardinals lineup -- Pujols, Edmonds and Walker -- and used 13 pitches to retire the side on a groundout, strikeout and groundout.

"He pitched to Pujols as well as I've seen anyone pitch to him," Garner said.

Said Qualls: "I thought it might have been Wheeler [in the eighth], to tell the truth. It's always been me, Wheeler, Lidge. They came out and told me I had the eighth, I thought nothing of it. I locked it back in, went out there, went as hard as I could as long as they wanted me to."

Lidge said Qualls was the "MVP of the game."

"Tonight, Chad Qualls went through the order with incredible tenacity," Lidge said. "He got after it. He had great stuff and he went right after it."

The ninth was bumpy, and it ultimately ended Lidge's scoreless streak against the Cardinals at 30 1/3 innings. He issued a two-out walk to pinch-hitter John Rodriguez and yielded a run-scoring double to another pinch-hitter, John Mabry, narrowing Houston's lead to one run.

But leadoff hitter David Eckstein sent a fly ball to shallow center, where Willy Taveras, inserted as a defensive replacement, made the running grab for the last out.

After the game, an enthusiastic round of cheers inundated the clubhouse, but it had nothing to do with the Astros' win over the Cardinals. All eyes were on the big-screen TV, watching the final moments of USC's last-second win over Notre Dame.

Judging from the reactions, which ranged from yelling to screaming to laughing, it's obvious this Astros club is one loose bunch.

"Some of the biggest cheers after the game were for our USC guys when they beat Notre Dame," Clemens said with a chuckle. "That's the way this team is. I'm in there trying to shake hands and they don't even know I'm there. Their eyes are glued to the TV.

"It's a good feeling to get the first [win] here at home. "We know that we're here for two more, and we'll see what happens."

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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