If the Astros play like they did on Sunday, getting to the promised land should be fairly simple. It's likely there has never been a smoother double play turned than the one that Eric Bruntlett started on Sunday, which ended a nailbiting situation and nearly sent the entire sellout crowd of 43,010 at Minute Maid Park into cardiac arrest.
The Astros were in danger of relinquising their one-run lead in the ninth when closer Brad Lidge yielded a base hit to Albert Pujols and another hit to Larry Walker, which moved Pujols to third.
The tying run appeared inevitable, but Reggie Sanders knocked a slow tapper to Morgan Ensberg, who threw home to nab a sprinting Pujols. One down.
In the meantime, Walker, noticing no one was paying attention to him, snuck over to third. This put the tying run 90 feet away, instead of 180.
John Mabry then sent a grounder toward Bruntlett, who entered the game in that inning as a defensive replacement for Craig Biggio.
Some thought Bruntlett would throw home. But the backup infielder decided even before Mabry stepped in to the box that he would try to turn two on anything hit to him.
Bruntlett sent a laser to shortstop Adam Everett covering second, and the shortstop leaped in the air to avoid Sanders' slide and made a perfect throw to Lance Berkman at first. The throw beat Mabry by a half-step. The Astros snuck by the Cardinals by an even smaller margin.
They didn't pile up on each other on the field, but the emotion that the infielders, and Lidge, expressed after the out was made indicated this was certainly not just another win.
"I was jumping, I was screaming," Bruntlett said. "I ran over to Adam. I think I jumped on him, I'm not sure."
Bruntlett then said to Everett, "That's the hardest I've ever thrown a ball to you."
Bruntlett recalled that Everett responded: "'That was perfect. It couldn't have been at a better spot.' Everything fell into place. Everything had to fall into place."
"That was something," Garner said. "You get [Pujols] at home on a tapper, then we've got first and second and there's not even going to be a question about a double play. Now [Walker] ends up sneaking over to third and you're thinking, 'Oh, no, this is a disaster in the making here.' Lidge makes a good pitch, Bruntlett makes a super turn and then the great turn by Everett."
For six innings, the only offense was a Jason Lane homer off Jeff Suppan and an Pujols sac fly off Brandon Backe. In the seventh, the Astros produced three baserunners without a hit and plated the tiebreaking run.
Pinch-hitter Orlando Palmeiro drew a leadoff walk off Jason Marquis, and Biggio reached when Marquis couldn't cleanly field the second baseman's sacrifice bunt.
Chris Burke flew out, but Berkman loaded the bases with a walk. As Ensberg approached the plate, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa exchanged words with home-plate umpire Phil Cuzzi, who ejected the St. Louis skipper. La Russa popped onto the field for a closer face-to-face confrontation with the umpire, and order was restored only when third-base ump and crew chief Tim McClelland barracaded himself in front of La Russa, refusing to let him get near Cuzzi.
Meanwhile, Garner replaced Palmeiro with speedster Willy Taveras at third base, and the move was the difference maker. Ensberg lifted a fly ball to center, deep enough for Taveras to race home and score the go-ahead run.
The eighth inning provided more fireworks, and another ejection. Facing Dan Wheeler, Jim Edmonds worked the count to 3-1 and did not swing at a fastball that looked to be high and inside. Edmonds backed away from the pitch and assumed it was ball four, but Cuzzi called strike two. Edmonds argued and soon became the second Cardinal to get the heave-ho.
|The Astros are the 11th team since the seven-game NLCS format began in 1985 to take a 3-1 lead. Eight of the previous 10 advanced to the World Series.|
|Year||Team leading 3-1||Opponent||Outcome|
|1989||San Francisco||Chicago||Won, 4-1|
|1996||St. Louis||Atlanta||Lost, 4-3|
|1998||San Diego||Atlanta||Won, 4-2|
|1999||Atlanta||New York||Won, 4-2|
|2000||New York||St. Louis||Won, 4-1|
|2002||San Francisco||St. Louis||Won, 4-1|
John Rodriguez stood in for Edmonds with a 3-2 count, fouled off two pitches and flew out to the deepest part of the ballpark, forcing Taveras to run up Tal's Hill to make the catch.
The Cardinals' dramatics were a mere afterthought for the Astros, who are invariably thinking about how close they are to reaching the World Series. They don't want to talk about it, of course, but they had a hard time skirting the issue with so many reporters using words like "destiny" and "meant to be" when phrasing their questions.
"It's hard not to think like that," Mike Lamb said, when asked about destiny. "Turning that double play right there, it's tough for me to not say it out loud.
"But I don't want to think like that. Maybe if we're forunate to win the World Series, you can look back and say, 'Maybe we tried to do everything wrong, and yet, here we are.'"
Berkman said the Astros "snatched a victory out of the jaws of defeat" -- meaning, the momentum was one well-placed hit away from swinging into the Cardinals' direction. That could have easily created a situation where the two clubs could be tied heading into Monday's Game 5.
"When guys realized that we weren't facing that secenario, but instead sitting pretty at 3-1 -- even though we haven't done anything yet -- you just had a wild swing of emotion right there," Berkman said. "But guys need to get over it, because there's a long way to go."