Cardinals third baseman Scott Rolen, hitless in his first 20 postseason plate appearances, broke through in a crucial spot. With two out and runners on first and second in the bottom of the fifth, and Houston ahead 4-3, Rolen stroked a 1-1 fastball from Astros reliever Chad Qualls into left field for an RBI single. (St. Louis blew the doors off in the next inning, scoring six in the sixth to pull away.)
Rolen, who missed 16 games down the stretch with left calf and knee ailments and finished the regular season 3-for-18, looked awful hitting against the Dodgers in the division series and had two tentative, unproductive at-bats his first two times up against Houston starter Brandon Backe. Leading off the fourth, he worked the count to 2-2, then took a 93 mph fastball down the middle for a borderline ball, then looked at exactly the same pitch at 3-2, this time going down looking.
Rolen's willingness to let two pinpoint fastballs go by in two-strike counts suggested a hitter who wasn't confident he could drive the ball and who was looking to walk. (As he did six times against L.A.) But against Qualls, Rolen turned aggressively on a brisk fastball at his knees, hard enough to pull it through the infield for a game-tying ribbie: a huge hit in a clutch situation to break an 0-for-October skid.
From the Bench
The repercussions of Houston manager Phil Garner's decision to start Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt on short rest in the division series continue to be felt. Faced with Hobson's Choice in Game 1 -- Brandon Backe on short rest or Pete Munro (he of the 6.75 ERA in 36 innings during the Astros' 36-10 stretch) -- Garner went with Backe, who actually showed decent stuff. But he had to hook him in the fifth, when his pitch count hit 93. Backe's replacement, Qualls, gave up the single to Rolen, then got raked for five in the sixth.
Backe had good command of multiple pitches (change, slider, two flavors of curve) and was mixing them effectively, keeping his team in the lead. In fact, Backe seems underrated, as he showed by going six strong innings against the Braves in Game 3 of the NLDS, and it would have made more sense to use him in Game 2, on full rest, rather than have to yank him in the fifth of Game 1.
When Garner moved to Qualls, he pulled the plug on the best pitcher he had available to him, aside from closer Brad Lidge. Asked if Backe was spent, Garner said, "Oh, he would probably say he wasn't. I felt like we asked enough of him."
Rolen's relief at snapping his slump was palpable. "I've been having good BP's all the way, hitting line drives and moving the ball around," he said. "Without being greedy, there were at least two balls that could have fallen in during the division series. It's a little bit of a mental battle, when you're seeing the ball well and having good at-bats. You need to start having some success." ... No Astros hitter inspires more fear among the St. Louis staff than centerfielder Carlos Beltran, who was 2-for-5 with a two-run homer off starter Woody Williams in the first. "We watched him closely against Atlanta, the way he's been swinging the bat," said closer Jason Isringhausen, shaking his head. "Woody made a good pitch to him, trying to go fastball inside, and he hit it out." ... Cardinals pitchers continue to give up too many homers, four in Game 1 -- two off Williams, one off lefthander Ray King and one off righthander Julian Tavarez. "You get a lead, what you don't want to do is walk anybody," manager Tony La Russa said. "You're in a little bit of a rock and a hard place. You can't throw the ball down the middle, but if you miss, you have to come after them. They took advantage of it."
Nothing new under the sun: St. Louis got competent pitching and scored 10 runs, more than enough to grab Game 1. What was striking was the littleball at work in the Cardinals' six-run sixth: two infield singles, a sacrifice bunt, an RBI groundout, a throwing error, a stolen base, a couple of walks. Six runs, one extra-base hit. "You don't have to live with the long ball," said first baseman Albert Pujols. "When you're in the postseason, you want to make sure you do the little things, get the guy over."
Houston, going with the iffy Munro in Game 2, is in a difficult spot, but if it can steal a game here, it has a fighting chance to take two of three at Minute Maid Park, where it hits .277 (average), .354 (on-base percentage) and .453 (slugging) versus .257/.330/.420 on the road, and throws the (presumptively) rested Clemens and Oswalt. Hitting four home runs, and rallying from a six-run deficit to create a save situation, are both encouraging signs. Still a series, for sure.