At last, in their 44th season, the Houston Astros are headed to the World Series.
Years of anguish and frustration were put to rest Wednesday night largely because Roy Oswalt stepped up with a sensational pitching performance that put an end to the National League Championship Series.
Oswalt held the Cardinals hitless through four innings and at bay over seven innings, enabling the Astros to take a 5-1 decision in the final game at Busch Stadium.
Two days after the Astros were shocked, and all of Houston was stunned, by Albert Pujols' dramatic three-run homer in the ninth inning at Minute Maid Park, the team and city got to celebrate the franchise's first trip to the World Series.
On Saturday, the Astros will take on the American League-champion Chicago White Sox in a World Series matchup of two teams that have endured more than their share of disappointment.
Jose de Jesus Ortiz of the Houston Chronicle set the tone:
"Forty-five years after Houston was awarded Texas' first Major League Baseball franchise, the team that was originally named the Colt .45s is preparing for the World Series.
"The Astros, who were 15-30 on May 24, are the first team since the 1914 Boston Braves to go from 15 games under .500 to the World Series."
Richard Justice of the Houston Chronicle wrote:
"This morning, the Astros -- yes, the Astros -- are the National League champions.
"Roll that last sentence around in your head. Say it aloud. Can't stop smiling, can you?
"They'll play Game 1 of the 2005 World Series on Saturday night at U.S. Cellular Field against the Chicago White Sox.
"And next Tuesday, there will be a World Series game at Minute Maid Park. Hello, Texas.
"'I'm not greedy,' Craig Biggio said. 'I just wanted to go one time.'
"After 18 seasons, he's going. So is his buddy, Jeff Bagwell."
Added Justice on how it ended, with the Astros celebrating and the Busch crowd applauding:
"When it ended, a quiet crowd of 52,438 at Busch Stadium did the classiest thing possible. They gave the Astros a standing ovation.
"They've long had the reputation of being baseball's best fans and proved it again Wednesday night as Busch Stadium closed after 40 years."
Houston's victory sent the city into a frenzy, as people took their celebration to the streets.
Gathering reaction from Houston, Dale Lezon of the Chronicle reported:
"Cars packed with screaming Astros fans clogged downtown streets soon after the game. Drivers inched forward and held their hands out their windows, high-fiving pedestrians milling in the streets. People stood up through the sunroofs and hung out the side windows of their vehicles, waving Astros banners, flags, towels and the occasional brassiere as others marched on the sidewalks chanting 'Astros, Astros, Astros.'
"'It's our turn now,' screamed Andy Martinez, 44. 'I've waited 35 years to see this. It's a lifetime dream. Now I can take my son and grandson to a World Series game. I never thought I would be able to do that.'"
As the Astros rejoiced, the Cardinals were left to reflect. Joe Strauss of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote:
"At 10:22 p.m., Dan Wheeler got catcher Yadier Molina to fly out to right fielder Jason Lane. As the Astros danced, a stunned Busch Stadium crowd of 52,438 momentarily paused in silence as if something had passed. It had.
"Wednesday's loss ended both the Cardinals' season and Busch Stadium's 40-season existence after 3,169 regular-season games and another 53 in the postseason.
"The Cardinals were left to pay the ultimate compliment.
"'They outplayed us,' left fielder Reggie Sanders said. 'They deserved to win. Pretty simple.'"
Columnist Bryan Burwell of the Post-Dispatch reported:
"A night that started as an uplifting, old-fashioned Cardinal revival meeting and turned into a tearful, regrettable last call for 39-year-old Busch Stadium. Back in his clubhouse office, manager Tony La Russa was dealing with media postmortems when he was told that there were several thousand fans in the stands still chanting 'Let's Go CARD-NALS!'
"'Really?' he said. 'Hold on, I'll be right back.'
"He dashed into the back rooms of the clubhouse and soon a steady stream of players came out and went back out through the dugout tunnel, climbed the dugout steps and in bare feet and flip flops greeted the crowd with gentle waves and appreciative applause."
Added Darren Everson of the New York Daily News:
"In the end, Albert Pujols' heroic homer didn't go far enough.
"It couldn't carry the Cardinals all the way to Chicago, or even to a Game 7. And it couldn't keep the Astros from going where they never have before.
"For the first time in the franchise's 44-year history, Houston is in the World Series. Led by dominating starter Roy Oswalt, the Astros overcame their Game 5 collapse and finished off the Cardinals. The Astros won NLCS Game 6, 5-1, last night at Busch Stadium, closing the soon-to-be demolished park and winning the series, four games to two."
From Mel Antonen of USA Today:
"After Wednesday's clinching win, the two were standing next to each other, drenched in champagne and wearing black championship caps and T-shirts, and talking about the never-ending quest that wasn't going to last forever.
"'Good things come to people that wait,' Biggio said. 'There's been a lot of sweat, a lot of pain. Now it's worth it all. The baseball gods have shined on us. We are not greedy. We just wanted to get to one World Series. We're going to the World Series. It's an unbelievable feeling. I don't know what else to say.'"
In Chicago, the White Sox were doing some strategizing, firming up their rotation for the World Series. Manager Ozzie Guillen has some decisions to make when the series shifts to Minute Maid Park, where National League rules will be in place. In Houston, the White Sox will be without the designated hitter.
Mark Gonzalez of the Chicago Tribune wrote:
"'The game will dictate whether they will pitch long, if I will pinch-hit for them,' Guillen said. 'It's a disadvantage. All of a sudden, we get to an NL park and we lose a DH. They add a player [in AL parks]. It's not easy for the manager to deal with, but it's part of the game.
"'My bench has to be better prepared right now than they were for the American League, because they might see more action.'
"Designated hitter Carl Everett could be relegated to a bench role for Games 3-5. Guillen has stuck with the same lineup for the Sox's eight playoff games."
Reaching the World Series is one thing. Winning it is another. Jay Mariotti of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote:
"You say the White Sox, because they've won the pennant, belong in the pantheon of all-time Chicago sports stories. I cannot agree. They aren't the '85 Bears, an entertainment orgy adored by all local precincts as opposed to a divided baseball audience. They aren't Michael Jordan, who won six titles and reconfigured the global identity of a city formerly associated with gangsters and stockyards. They've trumped 60 years of Cubdom, for what it's worth, but they aren't legends just yet.
"So how do they reach the gold standard? Getting to the World Series isn't enough. The Sox have to win it all, starting Saturday night against the Houston Astros."
Joe Frisaro is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.