HOUSTON – Roger Clemens (search) would love to carry his hometown Houston Astros to their first World Series, and he put them in pretty good position to get there.
Clemens held the Cardinals in check with six gritty innings, Mike Lamb (search) homered and Houston held off St. Louis 4-3 Saturday in Game 3 of the NL championship series.
Brad Lidge finally allowed a run against the Cardinals (search) but got David Eckstein to fly out with a man on second to close it out. The Astros took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series and need only two more wins to reach the first Fall Classic in the franchise's 44-year history.
With two games left at Minute Maid Park, they can wrap it up at home, too. Game 4 is Sunday, with Brandon Backe scheduled to face the Cardinals' Jeff Suppan.
Houston nearly won the pennant last year, but Clemens blew a two-run lead and lost Game 7 of the NLCS at St. Louis. This was his first chance to begin avenging that defeat, and he delivered — despite coughing up a 2-0 cushion again.
His teammates picked him up with a couple of key hits, and the Rocket improved to 12-8 lifetime in the postseason.
And he might be on the mound again: If this year's series goes the full seven, the 43-year-old Clemens is scheduled to start the final game.
Of course, if Houston drops the next three, this could have been the final outing of his remarkable career.
The banged-up Cardinals, already playing without left fielder Reggie Sanders, lost third baseman Abraham Nunez to a knee injury. Nunez only became a regular starter because All-Star Scott Rolen is sidelined following shoulder surgery.
Larry Walker did play, despite an ailing neck, and delivered a sacrifice fly.
Third-stringer Hector Luna made a key error, and the Cardinals dropped their second game in a row after taking the opener at home.
The home team has won nine of 10 games between the teams in the last two NLCS meetings.
Clemens' last outing was Sunday, when he came out of the bullpen for his first relief appearance in 21 years and rescued the Astros in the longest postseason game ever played.
The final Houston pitcher available, he threw three shutout innings and struck out four of his 11 batters to earn the victory as the Astros beat Atlanta 7-6 in 18 innings Sunday to advance to the NLCS.
He talked Friday about understanding that his job since he came home to Houston was more than just pitching. With Astros mainstays Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell nearing the end of their careers, there's an urgency to make the World Series — now.
The Rocket showed plenty of determination Saturday. Making his 32nd career postseason start, he even singled to right-center in his first at-bat.
Missing his most overpowering stuff, Clemens struck out only one — matching his lowest total of the season, also against St. Louis on July 17.
But he kept the ball down and minimized the damage in the fifth and sixth, allowing six hits and walking two overall.
Chad Qualls pitched two scoreless innings, even jumping to elude So Taguchi's bat when it slipped out of his hands after a foul ball in the seventh.
Lidge worked the ninth for the save.
It was a gorgeous 84 degrees and sunny outside, but the Astros closed the retractable roof at Minute Maid Park, as usual in the playoffs — enhancing the noise from the sellout crowd of 42,823.
Clemens cruised into the fourth before walking Jim Edmonds and Walker with two outs. Mark Grudzielanek grounded out, and Clemens pumped his fist as he walked off the mound.
Losing pitcher Matt Morris, who won the clincher in a first-round sweep of San Diego, matched Clemens until the bottom half, when he issued a leadoff walk to Morgan Ensberg. Lamb then lifted a 2-1 pitch to the opposite field over the short porch in left, his second homer of the postseason.
Now Clemens had a 2-0 lead, just as he did in Game 7 of last year's NLCS in St. Louis.
Again, he couldn't hold it.
Last season, the Cardinals came back on a tying double by Pujols and a homer by Rolen. This time, they did it with small ball.
Yadier Molina and Nunez grounded singles to start the fifth, Morris dropped down a sacrifice bunt and Eckstein hit a sacrifice fly. Lane ran down Taguchi's long drive to right, ending the inning.
Taguchi played left field in place of Sanders, still bothered by a sore neck and back after an awkward fall on the warning track in Game 2.
Pujols and Edmonds opened the sixth with singles, and Walker's sacrifice fly tied it. With runners at the corners, Clemens retired Nunez on a tapper near the plate, escaping further damage.
Lamb doubled over Edmonds' head in center with one out in the bottom half, and Lane followed with a go-ahead single.
Brad Ausmus grounded a single to right, Lane turned for third and Nunez came up the line to field Walker's throw. As Lane went down to slide, one of his knees crashed into Nunez's left knee, leaving the St. Louis third baseman on the ground in pain.
Moments later, he was helped off the field.
Luna came in to play third and Brad Thompson relieved Morris as manager Tony La Russa made a double switch.
Lo and behold, Adam Everett hit a chopper toward third that Luna gloved cleanly. But his throw to the plate was way high and wide, allowing Lane to score on the error and give Houston a 4-2 lead.
Notes:@ Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan threw out the ceremonial first pitch to Game 2 winner Roy Oswalt, drawing a huge cheer. ... Pujols has hit in all 15 career NLCS games. ... Clemens is tied with teammate Andy Pettitte and Tom Glavine for the most career postseason starts. Pettitte is slated to go in Game 5. ... Former President George Bush and his wife, Barbara, sat behind home plate and smooched when they were featured on "Kiss Cam" to the delight of the crowd. ... Craig Biggio's fifth-inning single back through the box sent Morris ducking and tumbling over on his backside. ... CF Chris Burke caught Pujols' fourth-inning drive just in front of the 404-foot sign. ... Sanders' 12 RBIs are the most by any player in this postseason.