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Astros' McLane: Loss a 'bitter disappointment'

ST. LOUIS -- Make it 43 years and counting for Houston.

Houston's had major league baseball longer than any city without
hosting a World Series, and the Astros fell short again this
season. Even with homegrown Roger Clemens on the mound in a
deciding Game 7.

Scott Rolen blasted a two-run homer off a tiring Clemens in the
sixth, lifting the St. Louis Cardinals to a 5-2 win over the Astros
in the NL championship series Thursday night.

"Winning still to this point never gets old and losing still
hurts just the same," Clemens said. "Especially when you throw
your heart out there and expose your heart to everyone out there
involved."

Now that the Boston Red Sox got by the archrival New York
Yankees, Houston takes the lead in major league postseason
heartache.

The Astros dropped to 1-8 in games in which they could clinch a
playoff series win, with the only victory coming in Game 5 of the
division series against Atlanta this season.

By beating the Braves to get out of the first round, the Astros
took a baby step forward.

But Houston's frustrating wait for an NL pennant continues for
at least another year. They'll head into a long winter -- a balmy
one in Houston, at least -- knowing they had plenty of chances to
eliminate a team that won a major league-best 105 games.

"I just told my players that, without question, this is one of
the greatest runs in the history of the game," said Phil Garner,
who took over as manager when Jimy Williams was fired at the
All-Star break.

"It was a fantastic run," Garner said. "I described our
season from midway on as very improbable. I think that's
appropriate."

This was the closest Houston had been to the World Series since
Nolan Ryan left the mound with six outs to go against Philadelphia
in the 1980 NLCS. But the Phillies rallied late and won in 10
innings, and Houston has never been the same since.

The Astros also lost close ones in the NL West division series
to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1981 and the NLCS to the New York
Mets in 1986.

But this really felt like the year the Astros would get to the
World Series. They had an improbable 36-10 finish that included 18
straight home wins, the Chicago Cubs collapsed, the Los Angeles
Dodgers helped eliminate the San Francisco Giants, and Houston
clinched the wild card in its 162nd game.

The Astros exacted revenge on the Braves for playoff defeats in
1997, '99 and '01, beating them at Turner Field to clinch their
first postseason series victory in club history.

Indeed, history looked as if it would finally be on Houston's
side Thursday night in St. Louis.

The Astros took an early 2-0 lead, Clemens was cruising and the
sellout crowd of 52,140 at Busch Stadium was eerily quiet as the
innings went on.

But the momentum shifted in the sixth, when the Rocket was
clearly gassed and the heart of St. Louis' powerful lineup was due
up to bat again.

Albert Pujols doubled with two outs left, and Rolen followed
with a 343-foot blast into the left-field seats to send the crowd
into a frenzy.

Houston never threatened again.

"You think going in, the way we got here, that things might
fall in place," Astros second baseman Jeff Kent said. "You think
it would be your turn. It didn't work out that way and it's
frustrating."

The Astros' "Killer Bs" lineup of Craig Biggio,
Carlos Beltran, Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman had no sting when it
mattered most.

Those four, including Kent, combined to go 1-of-17, with
Biggio's leadoff homer in the first the only hit among them.

"We had some quality at-bats and nothing to show for it,"
Biggio said. "It simply wasn't meant to be for us, for whatever
reason."

And when Jose Vizcaino grounded out to second for the final out
of the game, the red-clad Cardinals fans burst into cheers.

St. Louis players ran out of the dugout to meet near the mound
for hugs and high-fives while gold and white confetti rained down
on the fans. Many of the Astros watched the celebration from the
top step of their dugout, staring stone-faced at the celebration.

The Astros remain one of only six teams to never advance to the
World Series. That undistinguished list of franchises includes the
Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners, Colorado Rockies,
Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the team formerly known as the
Montreal Expos.

"It's a bitter disappointment," Astros owner Drayton McLane
said. "We were awful close. But our commitment now is as ferocious
as its ever been. We want to be champions."

The wait, as usual, goes on another year in Houston.