10/18/05 8:10 PM ET
Astros feel loose heading into Game 6
Players joke about Pujols' homer day after crushing loss
By Alyson Footer / MLB.com
If the mood on the plane ride to St. Louis on Tuesday gives any indication about how this team will bounce back from Monday's deflating loss, you would have to like the Astros' chances in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series.
The ribbing began immediately after takeoff.
"We kidded with [Lidge] the whole time on the plane today," Roy Oswalt said. "We actually told him we almost got hit by the ball when [the plane] took off."
The ball, of course, was the one hit by Albert Pujols off Lidge with two outs in the ninth inning that would have likely left Minute Maid Park had the roof been open. It counted for a three-run homer, turning the Cardinals' two-run deficit into a one-run victory.
When the team reconvened at noon CT on Tuesday to board the buses to Intercontinental Airport, the bad taste of Monday's bitter loss had considerably diminished.
Apparently, the intercom system on the plane was put to good use in the initial minutes of the Astros' two-hour flight.
"The pilot had a pretty good joke for us on the way here," Oswalt said.
Actually, as general manager Tim Purpura revealed, it wasn't the pilot.
"Let's just say, it was the veteran guys, with the approval of management," he said.
No one would reveal what the joke was, but it was most definitely directed toward Lidge, who has been the butt of a few jokes this postseason. First, it was the fake letter from the Commissioner's office fining the club $25,000 for dropping a taboo word on a live interview following Houston's clinching of the NL Wild Card.
On Tuesday, the attention shifted toward the home run that sent the NLCS to a Game 6, one that was devastating for all in the immediate aftermath of what looked to be the clincher that would send the Astros to the World Series for the first time.
If laughter is the best medicine, call the closer Dr. Lidge.
"That's the beauty of Brad," Purpura said. "He can take it. He can dish it out, but he can take it, too."
The Astros did not hold a formal workout when they arrived to St. Louis mid-afternoon on Tuesday, but a select group headed to Busch Stadium for a light workout. Relievers Dan Wheeler, Russ Springer and Chad Qualls did some work on the field, as did starters Oswalt and Andy Pettitte.
The hanging slider that sealed the Astros' fate on Monday was all of the news the next morning. Nearly every newspaper in the country ran it as its lead story in the sports section. It made headline news on CNN. Even non-sports fan Katie Couric talked about it in the initial minutes of the Today Show.
But in the Astros' isolated world, the focus is toward the future. Wednesday, to be exact, at 7:28 p.m. CT. At that time, the Astros will turn to Oswalt, a two-time 20-game winner who allowed one run in Game 2 in the Astros' 4-1 win.
If that doesn't work, Houston has Roger Clemens rested and ready for Game 7. In that respect, it's easy to understand the light mood among players and staff on their way to St. Louis. The Astros have to win once, the Cardinals, twice.
"We're still in the lead," Purpura said. "We're up, 3-2. We can win this thing. We've got one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball going tomorrow, and we've got another dominant pitcher going the night after that. So we feel very well set up for it."
The players had the same sentiment in the immediate moments following the Game 5 loss.
"They did a great job of coming back in that spot and that provides a tremendous amount of confidence," Morgan Ensberg said. "But they still have to climb up the hill. We're up a game and we have two more horses coming at them. We're in the driver's seat."
Mike Lamb alluded to the theme of the entire season, and said he wasn't surprised getting to the World Series wasn't going to be any different.
"It's never been easy," he said. "It's never going to be easy. It came down to the last day for the Wild Card, then the marathon against the Braves and now against the Cardinals. It's like we refuse to make it easy. That's just the way it's going to be."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.