In Beltran, Houston has a five-tool answer to Pujols: a gifted hitter--he went 10 for 22 against the Braves with four home runs, including two in the clincher--who's also the most agile defensive centerfielder in the majors. On Sunday he tracked a J.D. Drew drive up the incline of Tal's Hill in dead center at Minute Maid and backhanded the ball before crashing into the wall, a play whose difficulty was belied by Beltran's grace.
Against St. Louis the Astros face another uphill climb, mainly because Clemens has been showing signs of wear and tear. In light of season-ending injuries to Pettitte and righthander Wade Miller--and the resultant drop-off to the current No. 3 and No. 4 starters, righthanders Brandon Backe and Pete Munro-- Clemens's postseason starts, along with those of 20-game-winning righthander Roy Oswalt, have become must wins. In two nondescript outings against Atlanta, the Rocket had a 3.00 ERA and 12 strikeouts in 12 innings not with his usual bravado but by nibbling (he walked eight) and throwing a disproportionate amount of off-speed stuff, much of it not his best. "He threw me the first hanging split ever," said Chipper Jones, who had faced Clemens 14 times entering Game 4, in which the 42-year-old righthander worked a gritty five innings on three days' rest. "There was evidence he wasn't sharp--it gave everybody confidence that he wasn't invincible."
Because Garner made the debatable decision to use Clemens and Oswalt on short rest in the Division Series, he was left with Backe and Munro, who had a combined 4.81 ERA this season, as the likely starters for Games 1 and 2 against St. Louis. Like Clemens, Oswalt ran out of gas in the fifth inning of the Division Series clincher and couldn't make the Braves swing and miss at his slow curve; three days' rest won't be a viable strategy against the Cardinals.
St. Louis is thus a prohibitive favorite to reach its first World Series since 1987. After his team had lost the Division Series, Dodgers manager Jim Tracy could only shake his head, describing the Cardinals as "a very stressful lineup to pitch against." And Perez, who had a 14.40 ERA to show for his two starts, conceded even more: "Whoever they play in the World Series is going to have a very hard time." ?