Thursday, October 20, 2005

Astros finally go to the big dance

The stage had been set. We could feel it in the pits of our stomachs. With one strike to go in game 5, Albert Pujols breaks our hearts and our spirits with a three run bomb to force the National League Championship Series back to St. Louis. Oh, no, we think to ourselves, here it comes. Another post-season collapse, another season sputters and falls just short. Not this year, not this team. Showing same grit and determination that allowed the team to crawl out of a 15-30 hole to win the wild card, the Astros are headed for the Fall Classic.

Over the last 15 years or so, the Bagwell-Biggio years, the Astros have not been known as a clutch team, if anything, they were known as a team to fold when the pressure of the playoffs was turned up. They also had the bad luck to get matched up with the Braves and their pitching during the heyday of Maddox, Smoltz, and Glavine. Tonight, however, they proved again, as they have done all season and through the postseason, that they can come up big when the chips are down.

Craig Biggio 2 for 5, 1 run, 1 RBI
Brad Ausmus 3 for 4, 1 run

On a night when resident power producer Lance Berkman went 0 for 4, the veterans stepped up with key offensive production. Where the Astros of years past worked for the long ball, this team plays with a small ball mentality and tonight was no exception: hit and runs, bunts, a suicide squeeze; all the fine points, the dots on the “i”.

They could not play this way without dominant pitching and they got it from Roy Oswalt, who was dominating and earned the Most Valuable Player honor for the series.

Roy Oswalt 7 innings pitched, 3 hits, 1 earned run, 6 strikeouts

With an exceptional command of his fastball, Oswalt was able to keep the potent Cardinal hitters, particularly the lethal middle of the lineup, from doing any damage.

David Eckstein 0 for 3
Jim Edmonds 0 for 3
Albert Pujols 0 for 4
Larry Walker 1 for 4
Reggie Sanders 0 for 3

An early at-bat between Oswalt and Pujols exemplifies the futility of the St. Louis batters: Oswalt sends Pujolz back to the bench with an inside fastball that cut the slugger out and sent him pinwheeling through the batters box. Pujolz, batting .304 for the series and hero of game 5, was helpless.

The Cardinals were not helped by an abrupt loss of composure on the part of starter Mark Mulder who, in the third inning, let two hits unravel him to the tune of two runs. A solo home-run by Jason Lane in the next inning chased the former A’s ace. It was all they would need, although they added another three runs for good measure.

Now the Astros head to Chicago, underdogs again, and, for the first time this postseason, up against, arguably, a better pitching staff but they’ll get their chance, and that’s all a team can ask for. That’s all Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell have labored for, for 33 years between them, for a city and a franchise that has struggled mightily for any success, let alone the highest level of acheivement.

During the postgame press coverage, teammates were asked repeatedly about the original Killer B’s: how does it feel for them? Are you glad for them? There were not two players playing that I wished for more to reach the World Series and they could not have done it in a fashion more in keeping with the way both men have played their entire careers: with grit, with determination, with fire. They ran out every hit, dove for every ground ball, and epitomized that great baseball epithet: playing the game the way it was meant to be played. Now they get to play in the World Series. Finally. Exhale, pump our fists, jump up and down, and get ready for Saturday in Chicago.

Article cross-posted at The Errant Fool, here.

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