HOUSTON -- Impeccably dressed in a black suit, white shirt and tie, Tony La Russa walked down the dark hallway and toward his team's clubhouse at Minute Maid Park. It had been nearly an hour since Albert Pujols hit his improbable Game 5 home run, and as La Russa approached the clubhouse, applause broke out from the crowd of giddy friends and family of the Cardinals mingling outside the locker room doors. The sullen, sour-faced manager, who only a day ago was the hothead skipper who was tossed out of a game, who only an hour ago was one out from elimination, allowed a smile to creep upon his lips. He winked, and finally as he glanced at the family of one of his players, he whispered, "No problemo."
After Game 4, Pujols stood in front of his locker, swarmed by media, his head dripping with sweat, answering questions about the psyche of his team. Pujols faced the reporters calmly, with a smile, even. How do you stay relaxed, a reporter asked? "How do we stay relaxed?" Pujols replied. "We show you tomorrow."
Facing Pujols in the fateful at-bat, Brad Lidge threw a filthy slider that the first baseman flailed at hopelessly. Lidge attempted to duplicate that offering with his second pitch, but left the ball up in the zone, and a second later the ball was soaring above the faithful sitting in the $27 seats in the Crawford Box, expecting to bust out in celebration. "I was just thinking, Don't swing at the same slider that I swung at the first pitch,'' Pujols said. "Like I say, he's probably the best closer in the game besides Mariano [Rivera] right now. He has probably the best slider in the game. I just want to get a good pitch to hit and just put my best swing [on it]."
Said Cardinals starter Chris Carpenter: "I'm sitting [in the dugout] thinking that we've got the best closer in the game on the mound, but we also have the best hitter in the game at the plate. I was sitting there thinking he's going to try to throw him sliders, and he got a good one to hit. It was an unbelievable feeling. As soon as he hit it, you knew it was gone."
Phil Garner said the fateful mistake was walking Jim Edmonds with two outs and David Eckstein on second. "You have to let Edmonds hit the ball in the next count,'' the Houston manager said. "You can't walk him and [catcher] Brad [Ausmus] knows that and that was a mistake."
With Pujols' titanic swat, suddenly the roofed Minute Maid Park, roaring one second and silent the next, had the feel of an empty Home Depot. "We were making more noise in the dugout than there was in the entire ballpark," Larry Walker said. "It was a bit weird."
FROM THE BENCH
La Russa on the ninth inning: "I was thinking, If one guy gets on base, then Jim Edmonds, he's got legitimate [game-]tying power. And if we got a little something going, and you've got Albert and you've got Reggie [Sanders], I think that's the strategy you want to have. ... I think it was Matt [Morris] here in Game 3. He did what Lidge did today. You try so hard to make a nasty pitch that you overthrow it and you leave it in the middle. What was it, three straight two-strike hits and he's trying to be nasty? It's just human beings trying to do a little too much."
With his team facing elimination, La Russa made only one change to his starting lineup, giving righty Hector Luna the nod at third base against lefty starter Andy Pettitte.
La Russa attributes his team's offensive struggles to good Houston pitching. "The great majority of the pitches that have been made to us have been quality pitches, and I take my hat off to them," he said before Game 5. "Lidge gets a lot of attention, but[Chad] Qualls has come in a couple of times. I've seen very effective pitching."
A day after La Russa's and Edmonds' ejections, La Russa had no regrets over what transpired in Game 4. "I think really, it was a tough loss. When you have extracurricular stuff like the ejections, there's a lot to be said about how bad that is and unfortunate or whatever,'' he said. "I really think that [with] Jim's [ejection] -- I happened to watch it on TV when that happened -- that just doesn't merit an ejection. I mean, he didn't say any 'magic words'. He really didn't make a big thing of it."
Lidge was the first player at his locker after Game 5, ready to take questions from the media. ... Astros owner Drayton McClane said he was at his office at 7 a.m., too giddy with excitement with his team one win away from its first World Series. Sixteen hours later, his team beaten, he stood outside the clubhouse manager's office and reminded the attendants: "Remember how elated we were last year up 3-2?"... Said Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen after Game 5: "I don't like pitching here. I want to get out of here."
Up 3-2 heading back to St. Louis a year ago, the Astros had Pete Munro slated to start Game 6. This year things are different. Walker put it best after Game 5: "On Wednesday we're facing one of the best pitchers over the last two years [in Roy Oswalt]. We've still got our work cut out for us."