Oswalt out to pick up the pieces

Oswalt out to pick up the pieces

ST. LOUIS -- In the wake of what may very well be one of the most devastating losses in postseason history, the Astros are sending the calm and collected Roy Oswalt to the mound against Cardinals left-hander Mark Mulder in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series at Busch Stadium on Wednesday night.

The right-handed Oswalt was the Game 2 winner last Thursday night in St. Louis and he may be uniquely qualified to pick up the pieces after the Astros moved one strike away from clinching their first pennant on Monday night at Minute Maid Park, only to have Albert Pujols upset their moment of reverie with a ninth-inning, three-run homer off closer Brad Lidge.

"No matter who's up there [at the plate], he's got that 'I can beat you' sort of attitude," Astros general manager Tim Purpura said about Oswalt as his team took a day of rest from all the commotion on Tuesday. "'My best stuff is going to be better than your ability to hit my best stuff.' He knows what he wants to do out there. He's got a plan. He's got an approach. And he can execute his plan and approach as good as anybody I've ever seen."

For the second year in a row, the Astros take a 3-2 lead into the final two games of the series at venerable old Busch Stadium, which will close after the last pitch of the 2005 postseason is thrown. Sandwiched between Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens in the series, Oswalt will get a chance to nail down a pennant for the first time in his four-year big league career.

Last year, it was Pete Munro and Clemens for the Astros, and neither hurler could get the job done as the Cardinals came from behind to snare the series in seven games.

This year, the Astros had a 3-1 lead with Pettitte, Oswalt and Clemens lined up to close the deal. Pettitte couldn't do it on Monday and Lidge couldn't convert the save. Now it's Oswalt's turn.

"I'm going to pitch the same way I always pitch," said the right-hander, who is 2-0 this postseason with a 2.51 ERA. "I never go out there with the mindset I'm going to lose. I always go out there to win. It doesn't matter what happened yesterday. A lot of guys get caught up in what happened yesterday. You have to go out there and do your job the day you're out there -- can't worry about yesterday."

His famous mates in the pitching rotation always seem to get most of the publicity, Purpura said. Pettitte has the four World Series rings with the New York Yankees and his 14 victories are second best in postseason history, one behind Atlanta's John Smoltz. Clemens has two rings with the Yankees, 341 career regular-season victories and 4,502 strikeouts. He started and won Game 4 for the Yankees as they swept the Braves in the 1999 World Series.

Oswalt is the only pitcher in Major League Baseball to amass 20 wins in each of the last two seasons. He has an 83-59 regular season record and is 3-0 in the postseason. He pitched seven innings of five-hit, one-run ball in Houston's 4-1 Game 2 victory, its only win in six NLCS games played at Busch Stadium the last two years.

But when it comes to sudden death games, Oswalt's claim to fame was as a member of the U.S. team that won the baseball gold medal in the 2000 Olympics at Sydney, Australia.

"Probably the biggest game I ever pitched was for the U.S. in the Olympic Games," he said. "If we didn't win my game, we would've competed for the bronze medal instead of the gold medal. So you might say there was a little bit of pressure there."

Oswalt pitched six innings of three-hit, two-run ball in a 5-3 victory over South Korea. The U.S. then defeated Cuba, 4-0, for the gold medal behind the complete game, three-hit effort of Milwaukee's Ben Sheets.

The Astros will take that same kind of gutsy performance from Oswalt on Wednesday night. That way, they can save Clemens for Game 1 of the World Series against the White Sox in Chicago on Saturday night instead of putting the pressure again on the future Hall of Fame right-hander to win Thursday night in Game 7.

Clemens was a 5-2 loser to the Cardinals in Game 7 a year ago.

"In some ways, I think this is the game for Roy because he doesn't get the attention," Purpura said. "He's obviously not a real outspoken individual. He doesn't get the media attention that Roger and Andy do. But what burns inside him burns just like it does in Andy and just like it does in Roger. He's got a certain presence about him -- a quiet confidence that's difficult to teach. And he's had that since day one."

The question now is whether Oswalt will have the composure and the stuff to redeem Lidge and pick up the rest of the club.

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.