HOUSTON – Brad Lidge, Lance Berkman and all their teammates rushed toward second base, bouncing in unison to celebrate their great escape. A nifty double play saved the Astros (search) on Sunday — and one more win will leave the whole city of Houston jumping for joy.
Lidge pitched out of a major mess in the ninth inning, defensive replacement Eric Bruntlett started the game-ending gem and Houston held on for a 2-1 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals (search) in Game 4 of the NLCS to move within one win of its first World Series.
"It was probably one of the greatest double plays ever turned," shortstop Adam Everett said.
At least in the Lone Star State (search), it was.
Jason Lane homered, Willy Taveras made a saving catch on the center-field hill and Lidge stranded the potential tying run at third base to earn his third save of the series.
Houston took advantage of a critical error by pitcher Jason Marquis — plus the ejections of St. Louis manager Tony La Russa and star Jim Edmonds by plate umpire Phil Cuzzi — to build a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
The Astros can close it out at home Monday night, with Andy Pettitte on the mound against Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter. Houston has come this far before — the Astros were one victory from the Fall Classic in 1980 and 2004, but are 0-4 overall with a chance to win the NLCS.
"I'm starting to believe," said 39-year-old Craig Biggio, on the cusp of a lifelong dream.
Now it's the steaming-mad Cardinals who are in a serious jam.
"Guess what? If we're going to be a champion, we've got to come back," shortstop David Eckstein said.
Any postseason ejection is rare, and the last time a team lost two members came in 1998 when Cleveland pitcher Dwight Gooden and manager Mike Hargrove were tossed.
"This game, there's some real great things about it and there's some things that absolutely stink," La Russa said, declining to talk specifically about the umpires.
A security guard in front of the umpires' room at Minute Maid Park said they would not be available for comment.
"I'm not trying to get thrown out of a playoff game. I don't think I was adamant," Edmonds said. "I said, `I'm just trying to ask you why that ball's a strike,' and asked him to do a better job and he threw me out."
St. Louis has quite a task if it wants to win its second consecutive pennant. The Cardinals must face Pettitte, Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens in the next three games — if they can push it that far.
There is some hope: St. Louis won three consecutive games started by Pettitte, Oswalt and Clemens from July 15-17 at Busch Stadium. And the Cardinals, who have lost three straight, didn't have a four-game skid all season.
"They've got their three guys and we've got to find a way," Eckstein said. "This club is very tough, very resilient, and we're going to be tested."
Once again in this postseason, the umpires were in the middle of all the action.
The Cardinals were angry about Cuzzi's liberal strike zone all afternoon, and La Russa and Edmonds were ejected in the late innings for arguing balls and strikes.
The Astros are 2-for-31 with runners in scoring position during the series, so it figures that they scored the go-ahead run without a hit. After Morgan Ensberg's tiebreaking sacrifice fly in the seventh, Lidge entered with a 2-1 lead in the ninth.
The Cardinals managed a run against him Saturday for the first time in 31 innings, and put runners on first and third with none out this time.
Reggie Sanders, who missed Game 3 with a sore neck and back, hit a bouncer to third, and Ensberg made a nice play to cut down Albert Pujols at the plate.
But with nobody covering, Larry Walker alertly dashed to third, leaving runners at the corners again, this time with one down.
The Astros argued that they had called time out, but the umpires let Walker remain at third.
No matter to Lidge.
He got John Mabry to ground to Bruntlett at second base — though at first, the ball appeared to be hit too slowly to turn two, and it seemed the tying run would score.
Yet Bruntlett made an accurate throw to Everett, who whipped a difficult relay to first. Stretching as far as he could, Berkman caught the ball just in time to get Mabry. First-base ump Larry Poncino punched him out — and replays showed the close call was correct.
"We needed it to be perfect and we got it," Lidge said. "They rolled it and it was an awesome play."
Garner made a string of defensive moves late — and they all paid off. Bruntlett came in for Biggio, Berkman moved from left field to first and Taveras took over in center in the eighth after entering as a pinch-runner and scoring the go-ahead run.
After Edmonds was ejected with a runner on and two outs in the eighth, pinch-hitter John Rodriguez sent a long drive to center, but the speedy Taveras raced back and up the Tal's Hill incline for an outstanding catch more than 400 feet from home plate.
Shouting from the dugout at Cuzzi, La Russa was tossed in the seventh after Marquis walked Berkman.
With the score tied, pinch-hitter Orlando Palmeiro drew a leadoff walk from Marquis, who then bobbled Biggio's bunt for an error. One out later, Berkman walked and Ensberg hit a bases-loaded sacrifice fly for a 2-1 lead.
Edmonds' hit-and-run double in the fourth set up Pujols' sacrifice fly, giving the Cardinals their first lead since Game 1.
In the bottom half, Lane, who hit the go-ahead single Saturday, homered to tie it.
"For us, it's the best one out of three right now. It doesn't get any easier," Houston manager Phil Garner said. "We're in good position in terms of our pitching, our players and everything. But the job's still got to get done."