Houston, we have a pennant
Oswalt's gem lifts Astros into first Fall Classic appearance
ST. LOUIS -- As the fly ball sailed into the dark St. Louis sky sometime around 10:30 p.m. CT on Wednesday, every single person affiliated with the Houston Astros watched, frozen, breathless, waiting for that ball to finally land in Jason Lane's glove.
It seemed to take forever, but once Lane caught that last out, sealing a 5-1 win over the St. Louis Cardinals to clinch their first National League pennant, the Astros let their breath out. For the first time in its 44-year history, Houston's baseball team is going to the World Series.
Prior to Wednesday's game, Astros fans and those who cover the team were wondering how the team could shift the momentum back after what happened the other night.
But who cares about momentum when you have Roy Oswalt? The right-hander, as "big game" as the Astros have, was as good as advertised. The Astros pinned all of their hopes on the two-time 20-game winner, and did he ever deliver, allowing one run over seven innings, all of which earned him NLCP MVP honors.
It took less than three hours for the Astros to wrap up the NL pennant, before 52,438 disappointed St. Louis fans who watched the last game ever played at this version of Busch Stadium.
The Astros took advantage of a lackluster start by Mark Mulder and shoddy Cardinals defense early in the game, plating three runs in the first four innings. This accomplished two things -- it let Oswalt pitch with the aggressiveness that he used through most of his 20 wins in '05, and it silenced what was a raucous Busch Stadium crowd, still euphoric over Albert Pujols' Game 5 moonshot that forced Game 6.
"We took the crowd right out of it early," Lane said. "When we got those runs, it was quiet the whole time. They had one inning [the fifth] where they had a little bit of a rally going. We did some damage control and gave up only the one run there. We basically kept their crowd of it the whole time. Roy just dominated the whole time he was out there."
Oswalt hit a couple of batters in the early stages, but he didn't allow a hit until the fifth.
"I threw a lot more fastballs tonight than breaking pitches," Oswalt said. "When we got the early lead, I was going to make them hit the ball. I didn't want to put anybody on with a walk.
"Once we got up 2-0 and Lane got the third run [with a solo homer in the fourth], I knew I could be real aggressive with them, make then hit the ball and try to get deep into the game."
That he did. After he allowed a lone run in the fifth frame, he held the Cardinals to two hits over the next two innings. Larry Walker knocked a two-out double in the sixth, but Reggie Sanders struck out looking. In the seventh, Abraham Nunez singled with two outs, but So Taguchi grounded to first.
"What Roy did tonight, he set a tone right from the get-go," manager Phil Garner said. "He said, 'If you're going to hit me, you're going to hit my best stuff. I'm coming at you.'
"He didn't nitpick. He didn't try to fiddle around. To their credit, in the middle part of the game, he labored a little bit. They're a good hitting team. They kept fouling pitches off, they got him deep in the count. He kept going at 'em. He set the tone."
Chad Qualls blew through the top of the order in the eighth, ending Pujols' 0-for-4 night with a lineup to short. Dan Wheeler struck out his first two batters, gave up a hit to Mark Grudzielanek and then induced the fly ball Yadier Molina that clinched the pennant.
It took a moment or two for reality to set in.
"I wasn't quite sure what was actually happening," Wheeler said. "I saw Jason make the catch and I was like, 'That's the third out. Is this game over? Are we going to the World Series?' It'll probably sink in tomorrow when I wake up and I'll be waking up in Houston and [realize] we're not playing another game here."
Even when Wheeler had recorded the first two outs, not a soul in the Astros' dugout moved. That's entirely understandable, considering Brad Lidge had a 1-2 count with two outs in the ninth on David Eckstein on Monday night, leading by two, and the Astros, compliments of Pujols, didn't win that game.
"[Monday] night, I kept having to fight, saying to myself, 'All three outs, all three outs, all three outs,'" Garner said. "I kept thinking ahead, thinking that I'm about to watch the fans go crazy. I kept getting ahead of myself.
"Tonight, I never had one thought going forward. Maybe I was a little shellshocked from the other night. I stayed focused and I didn't let myself even think about it. I didn't feel it until we were out in the middle of the field. I didn't really start to feel it until then."
He wasn't the only one.
"Monday night, after an out in the ninth, our guys were jumping," general manager Tim Purpura said. "Two outs, more jumping. Then disaster struck.
"Tonight, no one moved. We learned about what can go wrong. You have to play nine innings, and you have to play three outs an inning. These guys learned that."
"I'm sure the city of Houston, after Monday night's home run by Albert, collectively inhaled," Brad Ausmus said. "And I don't know if they exhaled until about now."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.