HOUSTON – The St. Louis Cardinals appeared destined for another quiet postseason exit, one out away from their first four-game losing streak since getting swept by the Boston Red Sox in the World Series.
Just in time, they pulled it together.
Their late-game meltdown a day earlier was old news, forgotten in the euphoria of Albert Pujols' dramatic three-run home run off Brad Lidge. The long shot rescued the Cardinals' 100-win season for at least another few days in a 5-4 victory over the Houston Astros in Game 5 of the NL championship series Monday night.
"You saw some magic there," manager Tony La Russa said. "Believe me, it looked like we were going to get beat and the next thing you know, we have to get three outs to win."
The Cardinals still face a 3-2 deficit in the series and will try to keep the comeback going in Game 6 on Wednesday night at 40-year-old Busch Stadium, which will be demolished after the season to make room for a new ballpark that will carry the same name. They'll have to beat 20-game winner Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens to complete the comeback and make it a happy homecoming.
At least they're still playing.
"We've got to forget about tonight," pitcher Chris Carpenter said. "We didn't win it tonight, we just won one game."
At most, it could be a series-turning event.
"I think it'll get talked about a lot more if we win two more games," Larry Walker said. "Obviously that's an amazing feat, but two more wins is going to make it even better."
Pujols' 412-foot shot off Brad Lidge landed on the train tracks far past Minute Maid Park's short porch in left field. It turned a two-run deficit into a one-run lead and kept the Cardinals' longest losing streak of the season at three games. It also immediately silenced a sellout crowd that had been on its feet and cheering.
"I've never heard 43,000 people shut up like that before," Walker said.
When Pujols turned on a slider from Lidge, it was just about the only sign of life the Cardinals' offense has shown in their last four games. They totaled five runs in the previous three games and are a feeble 6-for-35 with runners in scoring position.
Earlier in the game, Pujols twice failed to deliver. He popped out to third with runners on first and second and no outs in the first inning against Andy Pettitte, and struck out with runners on first and third and none out in the third.
"I didn't come through for the guys," Pujols said. "I think this is a good way to make up for the three guys I left on base."
Before the homer, the Cardinals' offense consisted of a two-run bloop single by Mark Grudzielanek in the third. Lidge opened the ninth with a pair of strikeouts before David Eckstein singled, Jim Edmonds walked and Pujols brought them home.
For once, the hitters rescued the pitchers.
Carpenter was 4-0 with a 1.85 ERA against the Astros in the regular season and then beat them again in Game 1. But in the 263rd inning of a long, demanding season, the 21-game winner was victimized by Lance Berkman's short-porch, three-run homer that put the Astros ahead 4-2 in the seventh.
"I made a good, quality pitch down and away and he hit it into the seats," Carpenter said. "I was confident in the pitch, I was confident in the location and the result wasn't what I wanted."
When Pujols connected with his season-saving drive, Carpenter was a cheerleader in the dugout.
"I jumped up, put my hands up and screamed," he said. "I knew it was gone. It's the biggest hit I've ever seen."
And it sent them home happy.