ATLANTA -- On to St. Louis. On to the National League Championship Series. On to uncharted territory for the Houston Astros.
For the first time since joining the National League in 1962, the Astros are advancing to the second round of the postseason.
Their 12-3 win over the Braves on Monday means an NLCS showdown with the division-rival Cardinals, who have relative health, home-field advantage and an MVP-caliber trio of Jim Edmonds, Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen on their side.
The Astros as underdogs? This is nothing new.
"It's big," said Roy Oswalt, the winning pitcher in Game 5. "I was here four years ago and I told the young guys on this team today that you never know when you're going to get back here again.
"It takes just a little bit to get on fire to win this thing. If we win four games out of seven, we're right there in the World Series."
The Cardinals will have something to say about that.
They won a Major League-best 105 games during the regular season and won or split their season series with every team but one: the Astros. Houston finished 10-8 against St. Louis, won six of the last seven matchups and went 6-3 at Busch Stadium.
That's where the team was headed on Monday night. The Astros will work out on Tuesday, and Game 1 is set for 7 p.m. CT Wednesday on FOX.
"We're going to enjoy tonight," Craig Biggio said after Monday's big win. "We earned it. The boys in here earned it."
The good thing for the Astros about Monday was that everyone earned it.
Oswalt pitched on three days' rest and was good enough to hold a lead for five innings. The bullpen, after blowing a lead in Game 4, held on.
The Astros offense took care of the rest. Carlos Beltran went 4-for-5 with two home runs and five RBIs, leading an historic offensive night. The Astros' 36 runs and 58 hits in the series were both NLDS records, eclipsing the 27 runs and 51 hits Atlanta put on the board in 1995.
Houston's 11 home runs -- four off Beltran's bat -- set an NLDS record and tied the American League Division Series record shared by the 1995 Yankees and Mariners.
"I heard we were having a tough time with the Atlanta Braves in postseason series," Beltran said. "We're finished up with that. Now we can move on."
St. Louis manager Tony La Russa has yet to announce his starting rotation for the series, but University of Houston product Woody Williams is a solid bet for Game 1. Williams started and won Game 1 of the Cardinals' Division Series against the Dodgers.
If that is the case, half of Houston's Killer B's will be looking to sting. Biggio is 14-for-48 (.292) lifetime against Williams with five RBIs and seven walks. Jeff Bagwell is 16-for-46 (.348) against Williams with five home runs and eight RBIs.
The other half has struggled. Lance Berkman is a career .229 hitter against Williams (8-for-35) with 12 strikeouts. Beltran is 1-for-11 with five strikeouts.
Jeff Bagwell / 1B
Weight: 215 lbs
Bats: R / Throws: R
"There's a lot still to be done," Bagwell said. "We don't want to just end it here. We're going to have a tough time with the Cardinals. They're a tough, tough team and we always have great games with the Cardinals. I don't expect this to be different."
St. Louis is going for its first World Series appearance since 1987. Houston has never been.
Garner is 5-1 against the Cardinals since he took over as Astros manager in late June and said he unwound Saturday night by catching the Cardinals-Dodgers Game 3. It was the Dodgers' only win in the series, paced by Jose Lima's five-hit shutout.
"If you can pitch like that," Garner said, "I think you got them."
The Astros were up on the Braves, two games to one, at that point. Was Garner looking ahead -- even a little -- to a possible NLCS matchup?
"There's definitely things you try to learn when you watch the ballgame," he said. "You see how pitchers are working hitters, you see what hitters are trying to do and you see what pitchers are pitching. ... You're watching what each manager does, how they make their moves. You're seeing what players they use in each situation. There's information you're getting, but in addition, just enjoying the game."
The Astros' pitching situation is just as jumbled. Oswalt and Roger Clemens both pitched on short rest in the Division Series and will not be available until Game 3. That leaves Pete Munro, who has yet to appear in the postseason, and Brandon Backe, who won Game 3 of the NLDS, to work Games 1 and 2, respectively.
"I'm definitely not afraid, but they're a helluva lineup," said Backe, who was 1-0 with a 2.77 ERA in six games, two starts, against St. Louis. "They've got seven guys in that lineup that can hit the ball out of the park at any time. It's definitely a lineup to be careful with. But you also have to establish yourself early in the game and let them know that you're not playing with them. I'm going to pitch the way I'm going to pitch, no matter what."
So far, that's been pretty good.
"It's not a 'me' thing," Backe said. "It's a 'do your job, and the team will win' thing."
Adam McCalvy 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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