Oswalt and Miller, however, possess the dominating stuff that could take over a postseason series. Oswalt frustrated St. Louis hitters with an almost unheard-of 27-mph difference between his slow curve, which seemed to float and then vanish like a puff of smoke, and his laser of a fastball, which never went down the middle of the plate. Miller, in addition to his giddyap fastball, throws a parabolic curve that last Friday caught a jelly-legged Albert Pujols looking at strike three. Oswalt and Miller are a combined 91-48 lifetime, including 48-19 in their home park.
"The expectation around Houston is that getting to the postseason is not that big a deal, that we have to go further to be labeled a success," Hunsicker says. "But in reality, those of us in the business recognize how difficult it is to get into the playoffs and, if you do, advancing to the World Series is very difficult. A lot of things have to go your way, and you have to get hot at the right time."
Houston is accustomed to getting its Astros kicked. Twice in 1980 they were six outs away from the World Series, only to blow, respectively, two-run and three-run eighth-inning leads to the Philadelphia Phillies in Games 4 and 5 of the NL Championship Series. Centerfielder Craig Biggio, 37, and first baseman Jeff Bagwell, 35, who rank 1-2 in franchise history for games played, have come up empty four times in October, losing all but two of their 14 postseason games since 1997.
The Astros have such a low profile—the most attention they've received in recent years has been because of their ill-fated association with Enron, whose name was originally on Houston's new ballpark—that 13 of the team's last 14 postseason games have been played in the afternoon. The not-ready-for-prime-time players have had to battle odd starting times and twilight conditions.
"We'd like to win a postseason series for Bagwell and Biggio because they're Hall of Famers and you don't know how many more chances they'll have," Miller says. "Hopefully I'll be here for many years, but I'd rather not be around five to 10 more years and have teammates saying the same about me."
Says Bagwell, "If we get to the postseason, the middle four hitters in our lineup have to get hot and the starters have to carry us to the seventh inning and let our bullpen take over. That can happen."
Bagwell, second baseman Jeff Kent, leftfielder Lance Berkman and rightfielder Richard Hidalgo—the heart of the order-had combined to hit a subpar 103 homers at week's end. Bagwell led the team with 35, though he suffers from an arthritic right shoulder that requires a painful cortisone shot about every six weeks and prevents him from taking pregame fielding practice. Also, he sometimes has trouble "getting on top of pitches" that require him to raise the shoulder during his swing.
Bagwell homered on Friday night off Cardinals righthander Woody Williams, the shot flying into the railroad tracks above the leftfield seats. The next night he drove an 0-and-2 fastball from ace righty Matt Morris into the rightfield seats, the first homer allowed by Morris on such a count all year. Unbeknownst to Bagwell, both fourth-inning home runs earned a free chalupa for all fans in attendance on those nights (78,068 total) who presented their ticket stubs at Taco Bell the next day.
As for the Cardinals, they were reeling even before they got their chalupas handed to them in Houston. St. Louis was leading the Central at the start of September but lost four of five heated games to the Cubs at Wrigley Field. It was a draining series that started the Cards on a 4-10 flameout. "Mysterious is the word I would use," manager Tony La Russa says of his team's collapse.
The Astros, meanwhile, seemed to be peaking at the right time, even if that time is football season. Author Nigel Goslin wrote in 1967 that " Houston is six suburbs in search of a center." Not much has changed. The six-county metro area is larger than Connecticut, and the downtown area near Minute Maid Park is dotted with crumbling, condemned buildings. The ballpark, though, was abuzz last weekend.