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Astros defense comes through as Cardinals melt down

HOUSTON (AP) -- First baseman Lance Berkman stretched as far as
he could, squeezed the throw tight and hopped high in the air with
glee.

One more win and the Astros will have the whole city of Houston
jumping for joy.

Poised closer Brad Lidge pitched his way out of a major mess in
the ninth inning, defensive replacement Eric Bruntlett started a
game-ending double play and Houston scratched out a 2-1 victory
over St. Louis on Sunday in Game 4 of the NLCS to move within one
win of its first World Series.

"I'm starting to believe," said 39-year-old Craig Biggio, on
the cusp of a lifelong dream.

Now it's the steaming-mad Cardinals who are in a serious jam.

"Guess what? If we're going to be a champion, we've got to come
back," shortstop David Eckstein said. "We might not be able to
sleep tonight, but that's normal."

Lidge stranded the potential tying run at third base to earn his
third save of the series, Jason Lane homered and Willy Taveras made
a saving catch on the center-field hill. Houston took advantage of
a critical error by pitcher Jason Marquis -- plus the ejections of
St. Louis manager Tony La Russa and star Jim Edmonds by plate
umpire Phil Cuzzi -- to build a commanding 3-1 lead in the
best-of-seven series.

"This game, there's some real great things about it and there's
some things that absolutely stink," La Russa said, declining to
talk specifically about the umpires.

Any postseason ejection is rare, and the last time a team lost
two members came in 1998 when Cleveland pitcher Dwight Gooden and
manager Mike Hargrove were tossed.

"I'm not trying to get thrown out of a playoff game. I don't
think I was adamant," Edmonds said. "I said, 'I'm just trying to
ask you why that ball's a strike,' and asked him to do a better job
and he threw me out."

A security guard in front of the umpires' room at Minute Maid
park said they would not be available for comment.

The Astros can close it out at home Monday night, with Andy
Pettitte on the mound against Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter.
Houston has come this far before -- the Astros were one victory from
the Fall Classic in 1980 and 2004, but are 0-4 overall with a
chance to win the NLCS.

"For us, it's the best one out of three right now. It doesn't
get any easier," manager Phil Garner said. "We're in good
position in terms of our pitching, our players and everything. But
the job's still got to get done."

St. Louis has quite an uphill climb if it wants to win its
second consecutive pennant. The Cardinals must face Pettitte, Roy
Oswalt and Roger Clemens in the next three games -- if they can push
it that far.

There is some hope: St. Louis won three consecutive games
started by Pettitte, Oswalt and Clemens from July 15-17 at Busch
Stadium. And the Cardinals, who have lost three straight, did not
have a four-game skid all season.

"They've got their three guys and we've got to find a way,"
Eckstein said. "This club is very tough, very resilient, and we're
going to be tested."

Once again in this postseason, the umpires were in the middle of
all the action.

The Cardinals were angry about Cuzzi's liberal strike zone all
afternoon, and La Russa and Edmonds were ejected in the late
innings for arguing balls and strikes.

The Astros are 2-for-31 with runners in scoring position during
the series, so it figures that they scored the go-ahead run without
a hit.

"We've been bad offensively all season. We're just continuing
the trend. It's nothing new," Mike Lamb said.

After Morgan Ensberg's tiebreaking sacrifice fly in the seventh,
Lidge entered with a 2-1 lead in the ninth.

The Cardinals managed a run against him Saturday for the first
time in 31 innings, and they got something going again right away.

Albert Pujols hit a leadoff single and went to third on a single
to right by ailing Larry Walker.

Reggie Sanders, who missed Game 3 with a sore neck and back, hit
a bouncer to third, and Ensberg made a nice play to cut down Pujols
at the plate.

But with nobody covering, Walker alertly dashed to third,
putting runners at the corners again, this time with one out.

The Astros argued that they had called time out, but the umpires
let Walker remain at third.

No matter to Lidge.

He got John Mabry to ground to Bruntlett at second base -- though
at first, the ball appeared to be hit too slowly to turn two, and
it seemed the tying run would score.

Yet Bruntlett whipped an accurate throw to shortstop Adam
Everett, who flipped a difficult relay to first to end the game.