<
>

Oswalt launches Astros past Cardinals, into World Series

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- No wonder the celebration was so sweet. They
never had one before.

The Houston Astros made it to their first World Series in 44
seasons, owing it all to Roy Oswalt, who took his team's hopes,
dreams and gritty resolve and pitched them past the St. Louis Cardinals 5-1 Wednesday night.

Even with the NL trophy firmly in their grasp, they could hardly
believe it.

"It's been a long time, you know. I'm not greedy, I'm not
selfish, just wanted to go one time," Craig Biggio said. "I can't
tell you how happy I am, it took us a long time and we've got 5
million people in Houston who are very pumped up right now."

His teammate of 15 years, Jeff Bagwell, echoed those sentiments.

"Towards the end of my career, I didn't want an opportunity
like this to go by," said Bagwell, a prolific slugger slowed by
shoulder injuries the past few years.

Coming off a crushing loss in Game 5 of the NL Championship
Series at home on Albert Pujols' stunning homer, the stubborn
Astros refused to be shaken. They jumped to an early lead behind
Biggio and Jason Lane, got perhaps a little help from the umpires
and watched Oswalt shut down St. Louis for seven innings in earning
the series MVP award.

Now that this wild-card team has its first NL pennant, the
Astros will travel to Chicago to take on the AL champion White Sox
in the World Series, which begins Saturday night.

Cameras flashed all over Busch Stadium as Dan Wheeler got Yadier
Molina on a flyball for the final out.

League champions for the first time, the Astros rushed to the
mound to celebrate, bouncing in unison before heading to the
clubhouse for a more raucous party.

Houston had been 0-5 with a chance to clinch the NLCS. This
time, the Astros would not be denied.

"It's unbelievable, I can't even describe it," Lance Berkman
said. "To be a big part of bringing the World Series -- the first
World Series ever -- to Houston is just tremendous."

For St. Louis, the loss marked the end of the season for the
team that led the majors with 100 wins. It also was the final game
at Busch, scheduled to be demolished by a wrecking ball to make
room for the city's new ballpark.

"We were ready to play, but the guy pitched an outstanding game
and shut us down," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said.

After the final out, St. Louis fans stood and applauded, then
chanted "Let's Go Cardinals!" The video board played highlights
of great Cardinals players and moments, featuring Ozzie Smith, Mark
McGwire and even broadcaster Jack Buck.

The Astros won this rematch in six games after losing last year
in Game 7 at Busch. Thanks to Oswalt, it didn't go that far this
time.

"We absolutely had to have that performance, and he gave it to
us. It was tremendous," Berkman said.

Roger Clemens did his part -- and Andy Pettitte did, too -- after
both came home to pitch in Houston.

Bagwell, limited to pinch-hitting duty lately following surgery,
even delivered a speech to his teammates before the game, imploring
them not to give up.

"It was worth the wait," said Clemens, who has put off
retirement twice already. "Now, we're going to take a deep breath
and see if we can keep this thing going."

So while the Fall Classic is headed to the Windy City for the
first time since 1959, Texas will get its first crack ever. Folks
in the Lone Star State like things big, and it doesn't get any
bigger than this in baseball.

Get ready for "Deep in the Heart of Texas" during the
seventh-inning stretch.

In baseball-mad St. Louis, the Busch era ended in bitter
disappointment.

Swept by Boston in the 2004 World Series and determined to
avenge that defeat, the Cardinals were unable to capture a second
consecutive pennant.

St. Louis is still waiting for its first World Series
championship since 1982. Fans lingered for nearly an hour after the
game, cheering players as they popped out of the dugout to wave
farewell.

Born in 1962 as the Colt .45s, the Astros didn't make the
playoffs until 1980 and didn't win a postseason series until last
year.

Nolan Ryan, J.R. Richard and Mike Scott highlighted some stingy
pitching staffs the called the mammoth Astrodome home, but they
couldn't carry Houston to a pennant.

Not until Pettitte and Clemens signed to join Oswalt in a
stellar rotation did the Astros get over the hump.

And on the night it clinched the NLCS, Houston didn't even need
to use Brad Lidge, the All-Star closer who gave up Pujols' two-out
homer in the ninth inning Monday night that sent the series back to
St. Louis.

The Astros were one strike from their first World Series before
David Eckstein's single started the rally in Game 5. Lidge had been
voted MVP late in Game 5 before he gave up Pujols' prodigious shot.

Several other teams that squandered terrific chances to clinch a
postseason series never recovered: the 1986 California Angels, the
1986 Boston Red Sox, the 2003 Chicago Cubs and the 2004 New York
Yankees, to name a few.

Oswalt, who also beat Mark Mulder in Game 2 at Busch Stadium,
gave up only three hits and struck out six, improving to 4-0 in his
postseason career.

By closing it out Wednesday night, the Astros gave themselves a
choice of Clemens or Pettitte to start Game 1 of the World Series
on full rest.

The Astros became the first team to win a pennant after dropping
15 games under .500 since the 1914 Boston Braves. Now, they'll take
aim at something else: becoming the fourth straight wild-card team
to win the championship.

Of course, no game in this postseason would be complete without
a disputed call by an umpire.

With the Cardinals trailing 3-0 in the fifth, Mark Grudzielanek
was hit by a pitch and Molina singled for their first hit. Oswalt
knocked down Abraham Nunez's comebacker and threw wide to second,
where Adam Everett made a lunging grab and tried to tag Molina, who
jumped back in an effort to dodge the shortstop's glove.

Second base ump Greg Gibson initially spread his arms -- perhaps
signaling safe, perhaps just to show that Everett was off the bag.
Then Gibson made two emphatic out calls, apparently ruling that
Everett tagged Molina.

Replays appeared to show that Everett missed the tag, and La
Russa argued briefly to no avail. During an in-game TV interview,
La Russa said the umpire told him there had been a tag.

"We called it a tag. He was not called out for being out of
baseline," crew chief Tim McClelland said after the game.

"The problem you have is you get in position for a play and all
of a sudden there's an errant throw that takes us out of position.

"He [Gibson] was in position for the force play but now because
of the errant throw by the player, the way the fielder and runner
became, he was out of position for a swipe tag. He made the call
best he could."

McClelland said Gibson did not ask for help, but another umpire
would have come forward if he had a view that clearly showed the
call was wrong.

Instead of having the bases loaded with none out, the Cardinals
had runners at the corners with one out. Pinch-hitter John
Rodriguez hit a sacrifice fly and Eckstein struck out, ending the
inning.

Astros manager Phil Garner took a page out of La Russa's
playbook in the sixth, when Everett's suicide squeeze made it 4-1.
Morgan Ensberg added a two-out RBI single in the seventh.

Mulder's wild pitch behind Biggio gave Houston the lead in the
third, and Biggio's RBI single made it 2-0.

"Once we got a two-run lead, I knew I could go right at 'em,"
Oswalt said.

Lane hit a solo homer in the fourth, prompting the Cardinals to
get their bullpen up.

Mulder, who entered with a 1.91 ERA in six previous postseason
starts, allowed three runs and six hits in 4 2/3 innings.

"I just didn't get it done. There's no way around it," he
said.

Game notes
Bagwell hopes to be Houston's designated hitter in Chicago.
... The Cardinals pulled off 13 successful squeeze plays during the
regular season.