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Open season after Backe left

ST. LOUIS -- Everything was going according to plan for the
Houston Astros.

For five innings anyway.

The St. Louis Cardinals pummeled Houston's leaky bullpen as soon
as starter Brandon Backe was gone, scoring six runs in the bottom
of the sixth inning for a 10-7 win over the Astros in the NLCS
series opener Wednesday night.

"You've got the momentum early," Backe said, "and all of a
sudden, boom, it's taken away from you."

Before that, nothing seemed to deter Houston -- not Albert
Pujols' two-run homer in the first, not the cool autumn air, not
the rowdy red-clad fans at Busch Stadium.

Pitching on three days' rest for the first time in his career,
Backe worked 4 2-3 solid innings against the best offense in
baseball before wearing down. He gave up only Pujols' homer and an
RBIs double to Larry Walker in the fifth.

Backe then walked Pujols and was removed for Chad Qualls.

The 26-year-old Backe was noticeably upset when manager Phil
Garner came out to the mound with two outs in the fifth. He
reluctantly headed off the field, briefly exchanged high-fives with
his teammates and sat down in an empty corner of the dugout.

"When I got out of the game, I was pretty tired," Backe said.
"It was a good situation for me to get out of. You know, bring in
a fresh arm and try to get us out of the inning."

Said Garner: "I was pleased with what he did. We were right
there."

Qualls promptly gave up a run-scoring single to Scott Rolen --
his first hit of the postseason -- to tie the game at 4. Jim Edmonds
struck out to end the inning.

So far, so good. Houston needed only to get through another
inning or so before getting to star closer Brad Lidge, almost a
perfect scenario for the Astros in Game 1.

It didn't happen.

Cardinals starter Woody Williams retired the Astros' 4-5-6
hitters -- Jeff Bagwell, Lance Berkman and Jeff Kent -- in the top of
the sixth.

Then St. Louis really poured it on.

Edgar Renteria and Reggie Sanders singled to start the bottom
half, and Mike Matheny bunted to move them over.

Pinch-hitter Roger Cedeno followed with a grounder down the
first-base line that looked as if it would go foul, freezing
Houston's Jeff Bagwell. But the ball stayed inside the chalk,
allowing Renteria to score while Bagwell watched with the ball in
his hand.

"I thought it was going to go foul," Cedeno said. "It was
perfect for me."

Tony Womack and Walker followed with RBIs singles, aided greatly
by shortstop Jose Vizcaino's throwing error.

Qualls walked Pujols and then was replaced by Chad Harville.

Edmonds' three-run double finished off the Astros' meltdown,
sending the sellout crowd of 52,323 into a frenzy.

"I was a little bit frustrated because things didn't go my
way," said Qualls, who took the loss. "I had zero luck on my side
tonight."

From his lonely spot in the dugout, Backe took in the scene
silently and gritted his teeth.

After being a strength during their remarkable late-season push
for the playoffs, the Astros' bullpen has now blown leads in all
three postseason losses.

The Astros insisted their confidence in the bullpen hasn't been
shaken.

"I know we wouldn't be here if it wasn't for the middle relief
guys," Berkman said. "I'm confident we can get the ball to
Lidge."