How They Got Here
The NL Central wasn't much of a race in 2004. Led by the all-world Albert Pujols, the St. Louis Cardinals cruised to an NL-high 105 wins in '04, making a mockery of the division race early and spending most of September waiting for the playoffs to start.
The real drama in the National League that year was in the Wild Card race. For most of the summer, it didn't look like the Astros would have anything to do with that race. Despite convincing Roger Clemens to put off his retirement, Houston was 44-44 when manager Jimy Williams was fired, replaced by Phil Garner. But even Garner couldn't fix things right away, and the Astros were 63-62 on August 26. That's when they went on a 12-game winning streak to vault into the Wild Card lead.
The Astros couldn't hold the lead, though, and found themselves 2.5 games back of a playoff berth on September 25 with only seven games to play. Houston won all seven and finished a game clear of the Giants and three ahead of the Cubs to win the Wild Card.
St. Louis dispatched Los Angeles in four games in the NLDS, while the Astros beat longtime nemesis Atlanta in a five, the first postseason series victory in franchise history. Riding high after their first postseason success, Houston had to have confidence entering the NLCS. Sure, the Cardinals had finished 13 games ahead of the Astros in the division, but Houston had actually won the season series with St. Louis 10-8 that year, giving them every reason to believe they could compete.
What they didn't have, though, was Clemens and Roy Oswalt available to pitch in the first two games. With their two aces sidelined after a long first-round series, Houston lost the first two games of the NLCS in St. Louis. With Clemens and Oswalt back on the mound, the Astros won games 3 and 4 to tie the series.
Games 5 and 6 were instant classics. The teams took a double one-hitter into the ninth in Game 5 before Jeff Kent won it with a ninth-inning home run off Jason Isringhausen. Isringhausen gave up another ninth inning as the Astros fought back to tie Game 6 before St. Louis won on a Jim Edmonds home run to tie the series.
For Game 7, the Astros had the man they wanted on the mound in Clemens. St. Louis did not, forced to use fourth starter Jeff Suppan in the season-deciding game.
It can happen quick, the destruction of seasons. Just a matter of moments sometimes. For Houston, it took two pitches. They gave Clemens an early 2-0 lead in Game 7; Clemens gave one run back on a squeeze bunt by Suppan in the third, but it was 2-1 entering the bottom of the sixth.
After a leadoff single, Clemens got two straight outs. He had a runner on third, first base open, with Pujols at the plate. In most cases, the thought would be to automatically walk Pujols, but the golden rule of baseball is you don't put the go-ahead run on base, so the future Hall of Fame pitcher faced the future Hall of Fame hitter with the season on the line.
Clemens got the count to 1-2 on Pujols, a strike away from escaping trouble. And then the Astros' season was ruined. Pujols ripped a double to left field to tie the game. Cardinals fans barely had time to settle down when Scott Rolen blasted the very next pitch over the fence. 4-2. The Astros had been a strike away from getting out of the inning, up 2-1 with nine outs to go. Two pitches later, they were down 4-2, with nine outs to go.
There were still three innings to play, but that was it for Houston. They had signed Clemens for this moment, had given him the ball with the lead in a Game 7, and now they were trailing. Their loss was just a matter of time now. St. Louis added a run off a relieving Oswalt to make the final 5-2 and send the Astros home wondering what else they could do.
Fresh off their exciting win over Houston, St. Louis got annihilated by Boston in the World Series. In all honesty, though, they were just fodder, an inconsequential footnote to the Red Sox incredible journey.
Houston reloaded for 2005, bolstering their pitching staff by adding Clemens' good friend Andy Pettitte. They again barely eked out a Wild Card berth and again finished more than 10 games behind the Cardinals in the Central. And again, the Cardinals and Astros met in the NLCS. But this time Houston won to advance to the World Series, where it was their turn to get swept by a team named after socks.
What I'm doing.
The list so far:
13. 2004 NLCS: St. Louis 5, Houston 2
14. 1972 ALCS: Oakland 2, Detroit 1
15. 1973 ALCS: Oakland 3, Baltimore 0
16. 1985 ALCS: Kansas City 6, Toronto 2
17. 2007 ALCS: Boston 11, Cleveland 2
18. 1991 NLCS: Atlanta 4, Pittsburgh 0
19. 1973 NLCS: New York 7, Cincinnati 2
20. 1987 NLCS: St. Louis 6, San Francisco 0
21. 1988 NLCS: Los Angeles 6, New York 0
22. 2004 ALCS: Boston 10, New York 3
23. 1986 ALCS: Boston 8, California 1
24: 1996 NLCS: Atlanta 15, St. Louis 0
Still to come:
1972 NLCS: Cincinnati vs. Pittsburgh
1976 ALCS: Kansas City vs. New York
1977 ALCS: Kansas City vs. New York
1980 NLCS: Houston vs. Philadelphia
1981 NLCS: Los Angeles vs. Montreal
1982 ALCS: California vs. Milwaukee
1984 NLCS: Chicago vs. San Diego
1992 NLCS: Atlanta vs. Pittsburgh
2003 NLCS: Chicago vs. Florida
2003 ALCS: Boston vs. New York
2006 NLCS: New York vs. St. Louis
2008 ALCS: Boston vs. Tampa Bay