My heart sinks as Lance Berkman hits a three-run homer in the seventh inning to put the Astros on top 4-2. The Cardinals don't come back from that. Not in this series. Not the way they've been hitting. Not against Brad Lidge.
I was 13 when the Cardinals won their only World Series title of my lifetime in 1982. It was a landmark event in my life. There's nothing quite like your team winning the World Series when you're 13. My son is 13 now, and possibly a bigger Cardinals fan than I was.
"It's not over yet," he says as the game heads into the top of the ninth. Poor kid, I think. He really believes that. He just doesn't understand how it works.
One strikeout. Two strikeouts. One ball, two strikes on David Eckstein. "They still could do it. If Eckstein got on, Edmonds would be up next. And you'd have Pujols on deck," my son observes.
Right. I've seen teams come back in the ninth inning. With two outs even. But you don't come back when you're one strike away from elimination. Especially when you're down two runs, nobody's on base, your team is having trouble scoring two runs in nine innings, and the team you're playing against has gone 136-1 since June 2004 in games in which they took a lead into the ninth. He just doesn't understand how this works.
"I'm so sick of this," I think. "I'm sick of the Cardinals having a great regular season only to embarrass themselves in the playoffs. I'm sick of defending them. I'm sick of having a whole season amount to nothing. I'm sick of these stupid wild card teams going to the World Series when they can't even win their own divisions." I'm in a foul mood, to say the least.
"The city of Houston has been waiting for this moment for 45 years," says FOX announcer Thom Brennaman. Minute Maid Park is going nuts. The grounds crew is finishing putting the plastic up in the Astros locker room for the champagne that will be spraying minutes from now.
But plucky David Eckstein momentarily delays the celebration by poking a single through the infield on 1-2. That brings the tying run to the plate in the form of Jim Edmonds. But Edmonds is a strikeout machine and Lidge is known for making the Cardinals look foolish swinging the bat. You just don't come back from being one strike from elimination.
But Lidge is pitching Edmonds gingerly. His blazing fastball keeps missing inside. Edmonds walks, bringing Albert Pujols to the plate with the go-ahead run.
My son is getting excited now. Pujols is the guy you want batting in this situation, he tells me. But my son doesn't understand how this works--even Pujols, the Cards' greatest hitter since Stan Musial, bats only in the low .200's against Lidge. He takes an anemic swing at the first pitch (way low) and misses. I chuckle ruefully--this is what the Cardinals look like against Lidge.
The next pitch appears to be a slider (as Pujols would remember it later). A hanging one.
We're standing up in the living room. Screaming. Shouting. Jumping. It's nearly midnight, and the neighbors must be wondering what in the world is going on at the Rabe house. All the frustration of the last four games instantly melts away, replaced by utter euphoria. We were one strike away from elimination. The Cardinals lead 5-4, and finishing the final three outs is merely academic. The Astros are crushed.
If any of the last few pitches is a quarter inch another way, everything is different. But it happened. Maybe I'm the one who doesn't understand how this works.
For two hours we stay up and just bask in it. Whatever ends up happening in the series, we have almost 48 hours to enjoy this. We get another game at the soon-to-be-no-more Busch Stadium.
I can't remember the last time I enjoyed a baseball moment this much. Probably about when I was my son's age. With one strike left, things looked hopeless. But now everything has changed. The momentum has shifted--radically. Historically, teams don't come back from what just happened to the Astros. Think Neidenfuer against the Cardinals, Eckersley against Kirk Gibson, Mitch Williams against Toronto, Donnie Moore against the Red Sox.
I'm not a cynic anymore. Not this year. Not with this team. My son still thinks they have a good shot to win the whole thing. I'm going to start listening to him. He understands how this works.