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10/18/05 2:15 AM ET

NLCS heads back to St. Louis

Lidge allows two-out, three-run homer to Pujols in top of ninth

HOUSTON -- The Astros have never been to the World Series, but they've never been closer than they were with two strikes on David Eckstein with two outs in the ninth inning in Game 5 on Monday at Minute Maid Park.

Within minutes, the first World Series berth in club history turned into one of the most devastating losses this team has suffered. A base hit, a walk and a three-run bomb, and the Astros were done, losing to the St. Louis Cardinals, 5-4.

When Brad Lidge struck out the Cards' Nos. 8 and 9 hitters to open the ninth, the noise at the Astros' ballpark reached deafening levels, thanks to 43,470 screaming fans who went completely bananas two innings earlier when Lance Berkman knocked a three-run homer to put Houston up by two.

Two outs, none on and one of the top closers in the league on the mound? Pop the champagne.

But strange things happen when you let the best hitter in the National League come to the plate in a potential go-ahead situation.

Eckstein, the scrappy, crafty and, from the Astros' perspective, highly annoying Cardinals leadoff hitter, slapped a single just out of the reach of a diving Morgan Ensberg at third. No big deal; Eckstein does that regularly.

Walking Jim Edmonds, however, sealed Lidge's doom. And the hanging slider to Albert Pujols provided the final dagger through the heart.

"The mistake we made was walking Edmonds," manager Phil Garner said. "You have to let Edmonds hit the ball. You can't walk him and Brad knows that, and that was a mistake."

"You're not trying to walk Edmonds," Lidge said. "I was trying to make some pitches inside. They got a little too far inside and I ended up walking him. I still had confidence I could get Pujols out. I just made a bad pitch to him. That's why he's so good; he can hit mistakes."

Lidge stood tall at his locker, patiently answering every question from the more than 50 reporters who thrust cameras, microphones and tape recorders in his face. He reiterated a dozen times that the pitch to Pujols was a slider that stayed up in the zone, that he wishes he could have that pitch back, and that he knew it was gone immediately when Pujols made contact.

Lidge didn't waver throughout the interrogation, regardless of how tiresome the questions became. He was so accountable that an out-of-town reporter turned to another and said, "He really deserves better than this."

As did the Astros. They were down most of the game, until Berkman rejuvenated the crowd in the seventh with a 338-foot Crawford Box homer off Chris Carpenter.

The Astros needed only six more outs, and the first five were recorded with relative ease.

Mike Gallo retired the left-handed-hitting Larry Walker on a grounder back to the mound. Chad Qualls induced a fly ball and grounder for the final two outs of the eighth.

In the ninth, Lidge struck out two, and it looked like the Astros were on their way to the World Series. They still might be, but they're going to have to wait at least two days to find out.

"I don't ever celebrate before the last out is caught," Brad Ausmus said. "That's a good example of why I don't.

"Albert is a great hitter. I think he's established that the short time he's been in the league. He's a threat. We don't want to be in the position for him to win the game like that. Unfortunately, tonight, he was."

After such a devestating loss, is there anything Lidge's teammates can say to ease the pain of his most costly blown save?

Astros one strike away
With two outs and two strikes in the ninth, Astros closer Brad Lidge allowed the Cards to rally and take Game 5.
1-2, 2 outs
David Eckstein
1-0, 2 outs
Jim Edmonds
Eckstein advanced to 2B
3-1, 2 outs
0-1, 2 outs
Albert Pujols
Three-run homer

"There's nothing that's going to be able to take away the hurt that I know he feels," Berkman said. "We all feel for him. There's really nothing you can say. You tell him you love him and go get them the next time he gets a chance."

"This is the way we've been playing all season," Ensberg said. "I understand that he's going to take it hard. There's nothing you can say to him. He's going to be down about everything. He knows we're behind him. This is just baseball. This is how it works. It's been like this all year."

"He'll get the ball on Wednesday," Mike Lamb said. "There's no doubt. He's been phenomenal for us, and if the same situation comes up on Wednesday, give him the ball. Give him the ball."

After the game, everyone said all the right things. The players pointed out that they are still ahead in this series, 3-2, with two to play. They reminded reporters that Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens are rested and ready.

But this one is going to sting for a while. How it affects the Astros when the NLCS resumes at Busch Stadium on Wednesday remains to be seen.

"It's tough, but I know everybody in this clubhouse is looking forward to going to St. Louis and winning it there," Lidge said. "This is a bump in the road, but no way is this going to get anybody down.

"This is a resilient team. We've been through a lot this year. We're a tight-knit group. We stay together when these things happen and we get better because of it."

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.