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Astros stretch for elusive finish line

They're 0-5 in NLCS clinchers

ST. LOUIS -- The pennant was there for the taking, Donnie Moore on the mound, Red Sox outfielder Dave Henderson at the plate, a one-run Angels lead in the top of the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 1986 American League Championship Series.

''I was only wondering what kind of out Donnie Moore would get," Gene Mauch later told the Los Angeles Times.

In the closing moments of Game 5 of the National League Championship Series Monday night, Phil Garner might have been thinking the same. A strikeout, on a devastating low-90s slider? Or maybe a popup, on beat-me-if-you-can heat, at 97 or 98 miles per hour?

Brad Lidge went with Option A but hung one, and Albert Pujols made violent contact. The emphatic, quick wave of his bat had the effect of Keith Lockhart waving his conductor's baton. The music -- a melody of stadium anthems and deafening crowd noise -- halted. Instant silence.

''He hit the home run," St. Louis closer Jason Isringhausen said yesterday. ''And he [said] he could hear his feet hitting the ground."

Game 6 is tonight, here at Busch Stadium. The Astros have two more chances to finish this series, and they pitch Roy Oswalt tonight (opposite Mark Mulder) and, if necessary, Roger Clemens in a Game 7 for the second consecutive year.

There is creeping negativity in Houston, and it's well-founded. Houston is 0-5 all-time in NLCS clinchers, second-worst to the Cubs (0-6).

Consider the past:

The Astros were up, two games to one, on Philadelphia in the 1980 NLCS (then a best-of-five). They led, 2-0, after seven innings in Game 4 and lost in 10 innings, 5-3. They led, 5-2, after seven innings in Game 5 with Nolan Ryan on the mound. They again lost, 8-7, in the 10th.

A year ago, Houston led St. Louis, three games to two, shifting back to St. Louis for Games 6 and 7. Game 6 starter Pete Munro lasted 2 1/3 innings. Houston's bullpen picked him up, pitching 8 2/3 scoreless innings before Dan Miceli lost it in the 12th.

A night later, Clemens and Jeff Suppan, a pair of old Red Sox, dueled. Clemens had leads of 2-0 and 2-1 but lost the edge in the sixth, on a two-out RBI single by Pujols and a two-run Scott Rolen home run.

And then came Monday night inside Minute Maid Park, the 45th anniversary of the Houston franchise's founding. Lance Berkman homered in the seventh, vaulting Houston to a 4-2 lead. The Cardinals were down to their final strike -- a 1-and-2 pitch to David Eckstein -- when Eckstein bounced a Lidge slider toward the left side.

''Everybody's diving," Isringhausen noticed.

Morgan Ensberg dived. Nothing. Adam Everett dived. Empty-handed as well. The ball skipped into left field. Lidge was 1-and-1 on the next batter, Jim Edmonds, and walked him. And then he left his second pitch to Pujols in crush-me territory.

Pettitte was caught by TV cameras with wonderment on his face and three words on his tongue: ''Oh . . . my . . . gosh . . ."

''I couldn't believe he hit a home run," said Pettitte. ''Couldn't believe it. That's fairy tale."

A fairy tale that left a nasty scar for Lidge?

''It ain't going to leave no scar on him," Pettitte said. ''He's never folded up camp. A guy with that stuff, you don't expect him to be scared now."

But the Astros now return to Busch, with the Cardinals revived. The Cardinals have entered a Game 6 behind, three games to two, seven times in their history, and they've lost only one of those seven series (the 1930 World Series). They won Games 6 and 7 in the 1926, 1934, 1946, and 1982 World Series. And they won the last two when they had to in the 1987 and 2004 NLCS.

They looked and sounded at ease yesterday. It will be Oswalt's duty to convey such calm to his team.

''What burns inside of him burns just like it does with Andy and just like it does with Roger," said Houston general manager Tim Purpura.

The only fear is what burns inside the young Astros tonight. With the exception of 39-year-old Craig Biggio, no Astro in the lineup will be older than 30. So it seems a fair question: Will destiny's orphans feel the pinch of history, much as the Red Sox did all those seasons against the Yankees?

''Man, all I can tell you is how I feel," said Pettitte. ''With this team, with where we've come from [a 15-30 start], I feel good. I feel we're going to win the World Series.

''When I was with the Yankees early in my career, most of us were younger guys. They hadn't won in forever. I wasn't thinking, 'What a great winning tradition.' They were losers. They lost so much. We kind of brought them back to life in '95, when we got to the playoffs. And we started that run."

And that's what he foresees now?

''Exactly," he said. ''Exactly right."

And yet, the memory of Gene Mauch, Donnie Moore, and Dave Henderson lingers.

''If you're talking about momentum," Mauch told the LA Times that October day, ''I've never believed in it. Momentum is very fickle."

Fickle had a face. It was Red Sox 18, Angels 5, in Games 6 and 7 combined.

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