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La Russa falls for myth of momentum

WP: Manager giddy over Pujols' homer, but his Cards couldn't beat Oswalt
St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa goes to the mound to remove starting pitcher Mark Mulder in the fifth inning.Mark Humphrey / AP

Don't you just hate irony? For two days Tony La Russa has not been able to contain his joy and hasn't even wanted to try. Normally intense, tight-lipped or analytical in October, the Cards manager stood behind the batting cage on Wednesday night before Game 6, still telling stories about Albert Pujols's season-saving home run in Houston in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series.

Tony's phone had been ringing off the hook for two days. "I was so happy I had to call myself," said La Russa.

Did he reach himself? "I left a message," he quipped.

La Russa could hardly have imagined that, just a few hours later, the season of his 100-win Cardinals would be over — a second straight year with the most wins in baseball, but no world title to show for it.

Not only would the Astros, supposedly gut-shot after Pujols' blow, finish the night by celebrating the first pennant in the 44-year history of the franchise, but Houston's victory in this final game was a lopsided 5-1 triumph almost without drama. This time, a great starting pitcher — the Astros' Roy Oswalt — trumped all the momentum and mystique of one of the game's most memorable home runs.

Sometimes it seems that enormous psychological blows in the postseason always lead to eventual victory. When Kirk Gibson hit his home run in Game 1 of the '88 World Series, the Oakland A's crumbled. When Dave Henderson hit his homer in Game 5 of the '86 ALCS, the Angels fell apart. When Mariano Rivera had back-to-back blown saves last October, New York came home to Yankee Stadium and lost twice, dispiritedly.

But the famous momentum-shifting events of recent times haven't always turned the tide. Sometimes, though the individual deed lives on in lore, the team project of which that heroism is a part fails completely. Carlton Fisk's famous foul pole home run in Game 6 of the '75 Series was followed by a Game 7 loss by the Red Sox. In '01, the Yanks had two of the most unlikely game-saving home runs in Series history in consecutive games by Scott Brosius and Tino Martinez. The Bombers even led the Series. But they lost the last two games.

And now that's how it is for the stunned Cardinals, especially La Russa.

No manager of his time has had nearly so much buzzard's luck in October. Even in this final Game 6, the Cards were shafted by an atrocious umpiring call in the fifth inning that undermined their only potentially serious rally. An Astros infielder missed a tag by two feet; the Cardinal was called out. To someone like La Russa, and to a town like St. Louis that lives for baseball and knows all its history, such an ending seems almost perverse.

The St. Louis skipper signed his first contract the night he graduated from high school 43 years ago. Baseball, with all its superstitions, premonitions, psychology, sudden shifts of trend and, at times, borderline mythological qualities, has long ago infected his mind much as those medieval chivalric legends affected poor Don Quixote. La Russa, though he'd never admit it, has long been in the thrall of baseball.

And, after watching Pujols' blast Monday night with two outs in the ninth inning to bring this playoff back to St. Louis, La Russa believed in his bones that this time would be different. This postseason, after managing 11 teams that finished in first place, but only capturing one world title, he would be on the lucky side of the game's karma. He'd get the carpet ride.

"On the plane ride home, you're trying to pinch yourself . . . It was kind of magical," said La Russa. "So Dave Henderson and Albert Pujols, that [tape] will be played forever. I was on the other side of that in 1988. This side is a lot better." The "other side," of course, would be Gibson's homer against his A's in '88.

However, momentum is an elusive concept in baseball. Earl Weaver said it first and probably said it best, too. "Momentum?" he'd snort after a tough loss. "Momentum is the next day's starting pitcher."

Then Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar or Dave McNally would pitch a five-hitter the next game and nobody would mention "momentum" to Earl anymore.

La Russa told this old Weaver story here on Tuesday, trying to temper his own post-Pujols glee while simultaneously underscoring the point that all the slugging theatrics in the world would not suffice to keep his Cardinals alive if his Mark Mulder couldn't outpitch Oswalt.

And he couldn't.

Mulder lasted only 4 2/3 weak innings, allowing three runs, six hits, a long Jason Lane home run and several ringing outs. Just as telling, he looked nervous all night and uncorked two wild pitches, one of which went entirely behind the batter and bounced to the screen to bring home a Houston run.

"When I pitched Game 5 in Yankee Stadium [in '01], I felt like I was sitting in the clubhouse for 10 hours. The game just never seemed to start. You just get anxious," said Mulder, tipping his state of mind.

Meanwhile, the Astros' icy Oswalt, who has never lost a postseason start, was taking another step toward claiming his rightful place in the game. Most fans know that Oswalt has had back-to-back 20-win seasons. Perhaps they don't realize that Oswalt has a better career winning percentage (83-39) and ERA (3.08) than either of his vastly more celebrated teammates, Andy Pettitte or Roger Clemens. Oswalt also has a better ERA and winning percentage as an Astro than Nolan Ryan did in Houston from '80 to '88.

As for the Pujols mystique, Oswalt stuck a pin in it quickly, letting considerable air out of the Busch Stadium crowd of 52,438. In his first three at bats, Pujols struck out awkwardly trying to check his swing on a 96 mph fastball on his fists, then grounded to short before hitting a one-hopper back to Oswalt, who tossed the ball almost contemptuously to first. At that point, after 5 2/3 innings, Oswalt still had a one-hitter.

However, even a pitcher as aggressive and confident as the phlegmatic Oswalt, who was born and raised in tiny Weir, Miss., can use a break. With two on and none out in the fifth, Abraham Nunez hit a comebacker to Oswalt who, under less stressed circumstances, might have started a quick and almost routine double play. But the ball popped out of Oswalt's glove. He panicked, fell, plucked up the ball and threw wildly to the inside of second base. Shortstop Adam Everett made a wonderful snag of the ball and tried to tag slow-footed catcher Yadier Molina as he ran past.

Everett missed Molina by perhaps as much as two feet. And Molina never left the base path. The Cards should have had the bases loaded with none out and pinch-hitter John Rodriguez at bat. Instead, second base umpire Greg Gibson called Molina out. Suddenly, Oswalt and his 3-0 lead didn't seem to be in such terrible danger. Rodriguez managed a sacrifice fly, but the rally was dead.

In the next inning the Astros immediately got the run back on a suicide squeeze bunt by the same Everett with men on the corners and a 3-1 pitch, a spot where Cards reliever Jason Marquis had little choice but to throw a strike. The Cards are well known for their squeeze bunts, with a league-leading 13 in the regular season, but the Astros were second with seven.

Now, baseball's season will end as appropriately as many have hoped. Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte will get to pitch for their hometown team in a World Series. An Astros team with no pennants to show for 44 years will face a White Sox franchise that hasn't won a world title for 88 years.

In another week or so, one team will be spectacularly happy. But whatever happens from here on, both Houston and Chicago will spend the rest of October making up for lost time. Oh, there'll be dancin' in the streets.