Game Four: A Bitter Sweep Ending

The Astros’ attempt to win without scoring somehow fails

Astros fans everywhere should get on their knees and thank Brad Lidge for doing what he’s been doing best lately: giving up the winning run. Otherwise we’d stillbe watching Morgan Ensberg and Adam Everett getting out with men on base.

There’s only so much a fan can take. The Fox announcers -- every time Ensberg would come up -- would quote manager Phil Garner as saying the third baseman was “due for a hit.” Well, the Washington Generals are due for a win against the Harlem Globetrotters, but that doesn’t mean we’re expecting one.

By the end of the Series -- by the end of 15 straight fricking innings without a run -- Astros fans were reduced to hoping for the team to just go down 1-2-3 in each inning. A hit only served to again tease out that tiny bit of Garner-esque hope that said logically it’s all but impossible for a team that has made it to the Series to be so inept on offense. Logically, someoneshould be able to drive in a run.

Click here to enlarge.
Click here to enlarge.
Immediately following Game Six, thousands of fans swarmed the Academy on the Southwest Freeway for World Series gear.
Steven Devadanam
Immediately following Game Six, thousands of fans swarmed the Academy on the Southwest Freeway for World Series gear.
A banner spawned chants of "World Series, baby!" and "White Sox suck!"
Steven Devadanam
A banner spawned chants of "World Series, baby!" and "White Sox suck!"
'Stros fans packed the corner of Main and Prairie to watch the big game via a 30-foot by 40-foot screening on the Binz Building wall.
Steven Devadanam
'Stros fans packed the corner of Main and Prairie to watch the big game via a 30-foot by 40-foot screening on the Binz Building wall.
Pandemonium erupted as the Astros scored their first ever World Series berth.
Steven Devadanam
Pandemonium erupted as the Astros scored their first ever World Series berth.

Of course, logically by Game Four you’d think about having someone other than Brad Lidge as your closer.

In full sadist mode, the Astros seemed to insist on getting at least a single hit or walk each inning, just to twist the knife. If getting to second counted for a half-run, the ´Stros would be the ´27 Yankees.

The fans were so disgusted by the bottom of the ninth that, after the home team opened with a bloop hit and a sacrifice bunt, no one stepped up to pull a Steve Bartman when a foul pop went into the first row of the stands. “No, you go ahead and take it,” the fans said to Sox shortstop Jose Uribe. “We’d just as soon get this over with. The top of the order’s due up, after all.”

Maybe, after the bitter taste of the way the Astros ended the season begins to fade, fans will remember the good things: the torrid drive to win the wild card after a terrible start to the season; the way they bounced back after Albert Pujols broke their hearts; the way getting swept meant we wouldn’t have to endure Game Five and yet another chapter of hearing about Roger Clemens’s superhuman bravery, nobility and class.

Still, the lasting image of the Series, and the season, is likely to be Ensberg walking back to the dugout with his bat on his shoulder.

Some questions remain:

1) If, when Jeff Bagwell pinch-hit during Game Four, you found yourself envisioning a dramatic home run by the veteran, does that mean you secretly still believe in Santa Claus?

2) The Astros famously gave up shaving during the early part of their playoff run. Craig Biggio’s facial hair remained unchanged. Did he instead give up “manscaping” for the duration?

3) Sox fans famously harassed Biggio’s wife in Chicago, partly by pulling on her hair. We’re trying to picture a scenario where a person -- one who has at least the mental capacity to understand concepts like money, and the need for a ticket to enter a Series game, and even has access to that amount of dough -- actually pulls a grown woman’s hair. Is this a Chicago thing? Or was it a second-grader who secretly had a crush on her?

4) Hey, wait a second -- someone did tell Ensberg he was allowedto get a hit, right? Right?

5) Does Eminem have some kind of greatest-hits album coming out or something? We didn’t see enough ads for it. Then again, “Snap back to reality, oh there goes gravity” does kind of nicely sum up the Astros’ Series performance.

Oh, well. At least now we can turn our attention to the Texans.

We’ve been too busy following the Astros to keep up -- has Carr gotten off to that expected good start?

Publication date: October 25

Game Three: Score One for the Anti-Bee Cabal

Astros apparently getting paid by the hour to lose

The Astros’ pitiful performance in Game Three of the World Series can be traced to one, and only one, factor: the Man. The Man ordered the roof of Minute Maid Park to be kept open, thus fatally diluting the awesome power of the Bee Buzz.

Many a major-league player has wilted under the onslaught of the Minute Maid PA system’s piping in an annoying bee noise. It’s rumored that Randy Johnson begged to be traded from Arizona to the American League Yankees rather than face the wrath of the Bee Buzz.

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, painfully aware of the low TV ratings this Series is getting, wants this unwatched debacle to be over as soon as possible. The only way to do that was to disarm the Astros’ biggest weapon. Sure, he couldn’t stop grown-up fans from dressing like bees -- that would require serious clinical intervention -- but he could severely weaken their biggest weapon.

And it’s not just the buzzing. Can you imagine how loud the Minute Maid crowd would have gotten once they saw they had the rare opportunity to watch Ezequiel Astacio pitch? Fans who couldn’t make the trip to Round Rock to see the ´Stros Triple-A team have been dying to see Big E give up some hits and walks, and now they had the chance to see it on the biggest stage of all. Baseball fever, indeed.

The Astros came out with their “victory beards” trimmed to goatees, leaving Brad Ausmus looking like some guy wearing chaps at Brazos River Bottom or the Montrose Mining Company. This bold move, however, did not seem to add to their ability to -- to use a hyper-technical baseball term -- get a goddamn hit with fucking men on base.

Pardon the language, but Astros fans are more frustrated than excited these days. Watching Morgan Ensberg quietly stroll back to the dugout after stranding even more runners gets kind of old, especially if you’re forced to endure it in five-hour lumps.

The tension, the frustration and the sacrilegiously open roof all conspired to leave the vaunted Minute Maid crowd almost silent, especially as the scoreless extra innings droned on. Things got so quiet at one point that we swear we could hear the conversation between Barbara Bush and her wayward son Neil, ostentatiously sitting behind home plate:

Neil: You know, Mom, for the life of me I stillcan’t remember how many Asian hookers I’ve had sent to my room on my business trips to Thailand. Isn’t that wild?

Babs:Well, son, you’re just luckier than a Katrina evacuee, is all. Now be quiet and try not to get divorced again in the next few innings.

The White Sox did everything they could to hand the Astros Game Three. The umps helped, too, with a bogus call on a Jason Lane “homer.” The Astros, as has been true in all three games, just wouldn’t make use of the gifts.

Now they have to win four games in a row. We haven’t heard for sure, but we’re betting the team has sophisticated plans to “take it one game at a time.” We’re just guessing, though.

Odd note: Did we miss a 20-minute power failure at the park? We didn’t hear anything about it during the game or on the news.

But in the pregame show, we saw Michael McDonald and several other singers get up and start warbling some strange power ballad. When they got to the part about the red, white and blue always being true, we decided it was a good time to go put some brats on the grill. When we came back a good while later, they were still screeching away, so we can only figure the stadium lost electricity and they had to restart the song. No evil genius would subject a captive audience to that long a piece of pseudo-patriotic crap, to be sure.

Quiz time: The game ended at 2:15 a.m. on the East Coast. Seeing as folks back east have already made it clear they couldn’t care less about this Series, how many people were watching when Adam Everett feebly popped out to short to end the game?

a) Both Astros fans in New York.

b) Back off, man -- there were dozens of people watching.

c) Fully three quarters of the audience who had tuned in to watch the Ab Energizer infomercial.

d) Everymember of the Northern New Jersey Bee Lovers Club.

Publication date: October 24

Game Two: Make It Stop, Mommy, Make It Stop

Through the rain, darkly

We thought modern dramas were supposed to have three acts. Who went all postmodern on us and added a fourth?

First act: Astros take lead; no one believes it will last. Second act: White Sox take lead back, everyone thinks it’s over. Third act: Improbable hero brings the Astros back. Unnecessary fourth act: Brad Lidge tossing a gopher to a light-hitting Sox player.

We’re glad that Lidge isn’t letting things get to him, like blowing up against the Cubs in the final week of the season, like giving up the Pujols bomb, like making Scott Podsednik the new Bucky Dent. We’re glad he’s still confident on the mound, because the rest of Houston is getting carpal-tunnel from the frantic crossing of fingers whenever he’s given the ball.

There are many different methods to following the Astros: the wide-eyed optimist, the WTF is Garner thinking, the bandwagon approach of “Who’s that number seven playing second for the Astros”?

With this team, we prefer the Irish Fatalism approach, where you assume the worst is going to happen. And when something good happens, you feel more relieved than happy.

An internal monologue of an Irish Fatalist in the top of the ninth:

The Astros went three-up, three-down after the Sox’s grand slam, so here comes another inning of futility and a crushed team headed back to Houston. First up: Jeff Bagwell. Maybe he can at least get hit by the ball again. What -- an actual hit? Good for him, he won’t be 0-for-October, but it’s not going to make any difference. Lane up, strikes out swinging and not getting close to Jenks’s 100-mph bullets. That’s more like the Astros we’ve come to know and love. Burke walks -- maybe if they just never swing at another pitch they have a chance! Ausmus feebly grounds to first, moving the runners up. At least that puts both runners in scoring position, making the Astros’ stats for hits with RISP even worse. Time for a pinch hitter -- Palmeiro, of course. WTF -- Jose Vizcaino?The Jose Vizcaino, whose career started beforeSeinfeld was even on the air? Oh, Christ, why don’t you just wave a white flag and surren-- He hit the thing! And Burke is safe! I knew it all along!

Of course, the Astros couldn’t push over that one additional run that might’ve won the thing. Although even then, with Lidge coming out of the pen…let’s just say “Lights Out” Lidge is looking more like Vegas than the Amish Country these days.

The game was played in a steady, near-freezing downpour that the announcers officially referred to as “drizzle.” Just like Tropical Storm Allison was “a bit misty.”

If you’d paid hundreds of dollars or more for Series tickets, you’d probably be all right putting up with the rain. It was a Series game, after all, and you’re used to the weather in Chicago. We’re also guessing, however, that you would have rather passed, given the chance, on the seventh-inning break’s 20-minute-long smooth-jazz version of “God Bless America” by whoever’s replaced Kenny G in smooth-jazz hell.

If you’re able to step back from it, Game Two was a hugely entertaining match, with lead changes and improbable heroes. If you’re an Astros fan, though, you’re feeling nothing but pain.

Roy Oswalt should ease that pain Tuesday. Oswalt, by the way, was recently declared “Sexiest Man Alive.” Which publication gave him the honor?

a) Farm Implements Monthly

b) Rural Garage Mechanics Magazine

c) The Houston Chronicle, leaving no Astros stone unturned.

We’ll let you guess.

Publication date: October 23

Game One: Let’s Not Get It Started

The Astros revert to their bad old ways to start the Series

After 43 seasons, after heartbreak in 1986, after getting within one game just last year, the Houston Astros finally made it to the World Series.

And as Game One unfolded, just about every Astros fan was saying We suffered through all this in order to watchWandy Rodriguez pitch in the Series?

Apparently so, was the answer. Starter Roger Clemens stunk up the joint -- because of, no doubt we’ll be told, a sore leg that, right up until game time, was a 50-50 shot at having to be amputated. And in came Wandy.

And there went the game. It was almost worth it just to hear Fox announcer Joe Buck’s tone of disbelief as the bottom of the sixth started when he saw that Rodriguez was being left in the game after just having walked about half the Sox lineup.

The Astros actually put together three runs early in the game, but then quickly realized that they were, after all, the Astros, and shouldn’t be getting hits with men on. They reverted to form and put up a row of zeroes for the rest of the game, adding a special touch of hapless Ă©lan by having five of their last six batters strike out. “We’ll teach youto get your hopes up,” they seemed intent on telling their fans.

The hyped first-game duel between Clemens and Sox pitcher Jose Contreras never came off on the field, but the two just about battled to a tie in the equally important Fox Anecdote Battle.

It didn’t take long for Clemens’s dead mother to come up, of course, but we never quite expected to hear this in the pregame show: “When we return, Roger Clemens’s mother and her vision of Shoeless Joe Jackson on her deathbed.” As far as we can tell, that sentence is English for “For crissake, start the game now.”

Not to be topped, Buck managed to talk during the game about how Contreras’s Cuban homeland is rooting for him, and how the pitcher’s brother is “riding a horse to a farm that has a radio in order to let him hear this game.” It all had a very French Resistance feel to it, but since there was no dead mother seeing Shoeless Joe involved, the anecdote battle has to be given to Clemens. We’d rather he won the pitching match-up, to be honest.

What was most bizarre about the game was the Chicago crowd. None of them, as far as we could tell, were dressed up as bees. Or any other type of insect, for that matter. The Sox have players named Pierzynski and Podsednik, but no one in the crowd had a sign about the “Killer P’s,” and there were no sound effects of someone taking a leak when either came up to bat.

And Chicagoans call themselves baseball fans.

Publication date: October 20

Game Six: The 43-Year-Old Virgins

The Astros finally get past first base, reach the promised land

Baseball fans -- whether they root for the Astros, the Cards or any other team -- can all agree about Roy Oswalt. At the end of the day, there is one simple statement you can make about Roy-O: Whenever he pushes back his cap and rubs his forehead, it always looks like the next words out of his mouth are going to be “Yup, what you got here is your classic broken fan belt.”

Oh, and they can also agree he’s one helluva pitcher.

The Lone Gunman did the baseball equivalent of three kill shots in eight seconds, unmanning the Cards at the plate to such a degree that they began to look hapless in the field. Cards catcher Yadier Molina strolled after two wild pitches with all the urgency of a window-shopper. Center fielder Jim Edmonds let a ball get by him for a run on a play that would have raised the ire of a T-ball coach.

The Astros positively put on an offensive explosion in the third, with a slow-roller base hit, a grounder where the pitcher failed to cover first, a sacrifice fly where the pitcher failed to realize he had the runner dead to rights at third, and then a wild pitch. For the Astros lately, that’s a regular Murderers’ Row.

Prior to that, it looked like it was going to be a very long night for Astros fans. Mostly because the Fox announcers spent the bulk of the first inning regaling us twice with how some Astro had joked on the flight to St. Louis about how you could see Pujols’ Game Five home-run ball from there. Neither time was the story told in any manner that would actually solicit a chuckle; instead the comic timing was more of the “Oh, wait, I forgot to say that they were on a plane” variety.

Despite that, and because of Oswalt’s mastery, the Astros cruised to a victory with only a few tense moments. And the ´Stros, after 43 seasons of close calls, outright ineptitude and occasional injustice from the baseball gods, had finally reached the World Series.

Jeff Bagwell, interviewed on the field after the final out, said, “I’m ecstatic.” Being Jeff Bagwell, he said it in the same tone as someone saying, “You know, I’m kind of hungry right now.”

The local TV stations went wall-to-wall, providing comprehensive coverage of what drunk people thought about the Astros. The transcript of one sports-bar interview by KHOU’s Vicente Arenas:

Arenas: What was your favorite part of the game?

Very Excited Fan: The Astros winning, maaaan! Wooooooo!

Arenas: No, but what was the best part of the game?

Very Excited Fan: [pause for deep thinking, then a light bulb goes off] The whole thing, maaan!

Arenas [utterly determined to get to the bottom of this Vital Question]: Right, but what was the best part?

Very Excited Fan: The Astros winning! Woooooo!

KPRC kept going back to poor Lisa Baldwin downtown, even as the crowds dwindled near midnight. The few revelers who remained seemed to huddle around the TV reporters as if for warmth, staying relatively quiet until the cameras turned on, when they could begin shouting again.

The Baldwin highlight came when they threw to her one time sooner than she expected. Not only was the crowd utterly still, but you could actually hear one guy behind her say to another guy: “Come on, man, you’re gonna get her fired.” Then everyone realized they were on the air, and the party resumed, minus any noticeable fireable offenses.

Most surprising stat of the night: We were flipping through channels, so obviously we might have missed something, but by our count it took at least an hour and ten minutes before an Astro made even a slight mention of the key role Jesus and His heavenly minions played in their victory. (We definitely had the under on that bet.) We did, however, correctly predict Morgan “I’m Not Jewish!” Ensberg as the Uncertain Trumpet through which the Lord would deliver his message to baseball fans.

As the champagne dried, the ´Stros could say, as Bobby Kennedy said after the California primary in 1968, “Now it’s on to Chicago and let’s win there.”

We can only hope things work out better for them than they did for Bobby.

Publication date: October 17

Game Five: So That’sHow It Feels

A little Red Sox pain for the Astros

Houston, you’ve had your Billy Buckner moment. Defeat has been snatched from the jaws of victory in the cruelest way.

It hurts, but the best thing to do now is to go on and win the next game, as opposed to taking the Boston option of producing a cottage industry of whiney pseudo-literary books and documentaries. Just adopting the proper accent would be too hard: “Dat Lidge, I’m tellin’ ya, he broke my hat” somehow doesn’t sound right, especially from someone dressed up in a bee suit.

The Astros had spent most of the evening flailing away comically in their attempts to get a hit off Card pitcher Chris Carpenter. Carpenter’s going to win the NL Cy Young Award, so technically there’s no shame in looking utterly hapless before him, but it does tend to take the crowd out of the game. All Fox could do to maintain interest was to keep going to the Crotch-Cam whenever Andy Pettitte was on the mound; Pettitte obviously follows the Spinal Tap code of “walking around with armadillos in our trousers.”

Until the end, the Astros’ offense couldn’t get any more small-ballish if it was playing T-ball. What thrills! A run scores on a broken-bat single. The crowd jumps to its feet for a possible extra-base hit…that would’ve been the result of the Cards’ catcher misplaying a dribbler up the line. The dribbler was deemed foul, but for a brief few moments it looked like an Astros offensive explosion.

Then, finally, Lance Berkman came up in the eighth. And once again Astros fans everywhere uttered their traditional baseball mantra: “Thank Christfor those Crawford boxes.” The ´Stros have been banging balls into those Crawford boxes like they were Pabst cans into the recyclable containers at a frat party. (An ecologically conscious frat party, of course.)

The Crawford boxes: Come see the magical place where pop-ups and doubles transform before your eyesinto heroic king-sized dingers!

(In terms of actual home runs, like the ones major-leaguers hit, an example would be the bomb by Albert “Why the hell wasn’t I intentionally walked” Pujols that came in the ninth with two out, while Houston fans were frantically holding their breath. Nowwe know why they’re keeping the roof closed -- it’s to make sure no one on the street gets hurt by a Pujols homer.)

There are no Crawford boxes in St. Louis, of course. Luckily, there’s probably not much Chris Carpenter left, either. The Astros still have a great chance to take this thing. Just like last year, when they were up 3-2 heading back to St. Louis for the final two games.

Question of the night: How does Mike Lamb nothave his foot on first base when he’s catching the throw on a run-of-the-mill groundout? Isn’t this covered in First Base 101? We can only hope Lamb hasn’t missed much else of his baseball prerequisite classes, like Uniforms Include Pants.

Odd comment of the night: Fox play-by-play guy Thom Brennaman formerly broadcast the Arizona Diamondbacks. Analyst Bob Brenly used to manage the team. Both were there the one time the D-backs bought their way to a world championship. And last night they both agreed, somehow, that “Most every objective observer would tell you that that Arizona-New York series was one of the best World Series ever!”

Maybe if you live in Phoenix. Otherwise, not so much. Then again, these were the guys who kept telling us Prison Breakis “the most talked-about new show on TV this season!”

So now it’s back to Busch, with the Lone Assassin taking the mound. Let’s hope the Mannlicher-Carcano’s oiled and ready, the Secret Service is sleeping on the job, and Jack Ruby’s busy dealing with junkie strippers.

Publication date: October 16

The Bee Thing

Our (no doubt unsuccessful) plea to save a city

Is Tony La Russa still arguing? Because we’ve seen UN debates that have been cut off sooner than he was in the fourth game.

La Russa -- or Grampa Sunglasses, as we like to call him -- was taking issue with the strike zone of umpire Phil Cuzzi. We’ve got to admit, Cuzzi’s strike zone was a fluid, ethereal concept during the game, seeming to change according to Cuzzi’s many whims. But one iron-clad rule in baseball is this: If you’re a manager, you’re going to get tossed out for arguing balls and strikes.

Grampa, apparently cranky from being forced to wear prescription shades indoors, nevertheless chose to argue balls and strikes and was promptly tossed out of the game. Not so’s you’d notice, however.

La Russa started arguing with another umpire -- crew chief Tim McClelland -- for what seemed like 45 minutes. After about ten of those minutes, you started wondering just what the hell La Russa needed to do to be shown the door. We know he’s a genius and all, but the umps were standing there patiently listening to him -- afterhe’d already been thrown out -- like he was using that genius of his to tell a particularly fascinating, and long, anecdote.

Eventually, after a few hours or so, La Russa deigned to leave and the game went on. The Astros won again, of course, despite their stubborn insistence that winning does not require getting any hits with men on base.

The crowd was strangely quiet for most of the game, either out of the inherent tenseness that comes with Brandon Backe on the mound or just out of Sunday-afternoon torpor. Or maybe they were pissed that on one of the most beautiful weather days of the year, they were stuck inside. (All those tax dollars that went to making the roof retractable? Kind of like paying for the picture-in-picture feature on a new TV, never to be used.)

The relative serenity of the crowd meant that the home viewers got the full effect of the single most annoying stadium sound effect ever: the “buzzing bee” sound whenever an Astro comes up whose last name begins with a B. Apparently the hope is that the opposing pitcher is allergic to bees, or had a traumatic experience as a child when he threw a baseball into a hive. So far, however, no pitcher seems to have taken notice.

What about the Killer E’s -- Everett and Ensberg? Don’t they deserve something? Killer E as in ecstasy as in clubs with dilated-pupil partyers chewing on pacifiers -- play some techno music! (Side benefit -- the Killer E’s can handle 18-inning games with no sweat, although they tend to talk a lotduring their at-bats.)

The whole Killer B thing, we’re afraid to say, is inutterably lame. Signs and banners are great, but when you start dressing up like bees -- when you start dressing up helpless infants as bees -- the rest of the country isn’t saying “What great baseball fans,” they’re saying “Who dresses up in costume for a baseball game?”

Unfortunately, the Fox cameras can’t seem to get enough of the bee crap. Which means more people will be dressing up in order to get on TV. A free tip for folks desperate for TV time: Dress up and act like Bumble Bee Guy from The Simpsons. Fox won’t be able to resist! (You can always get your dignity back in a decade or so.)

Oddest Sight of the Game: Nolan Ryan actually cheering after center fielder Willy Taveras pulled down a long liner on the outfield hill to end the eighth. Why is it odd? Because Ryan -- who tends to get shown on TV every other pitch when he’s sitting in the stands -- normally looks as excited watching a game as a guy in his dentist’s waiting room. We didn’t know he could even look interested.

Publication date: October 16

He Walks Among Us

Thou shalt have no false idols before Clemens

Saturday, October 15, dawned with most Astros fans in a hopeful mood. Most, admittedly, were hopeful that the team would take Game Three and get a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.

Others, perhaps a not-large minority, were hoping the team would be able to do it without Roger Clemens being declared an actual deity.

That second, smaller group had its hopes dashed pretty early, when they picked up the Houston Chronicle’s special Astros section, saw the headline “Simply the Greatest” and then read this dreck of a lead from columnist John P. Lopez:

“Mama called, and Roger Clemens had to listen -- that’s just how Houston boys are brought up. Mama was the city he called home. And Mama was the woman whose warm hug and spitfire inspiration helped carry Clemens to places he never imagined.”

Yikes.

And Mama also told him he was too big a star to travel with the team when he didn’t feel like it, we guess.

We tried to make it through the rest of Lopez’s column, but -- like the Great Wall of China -- there came this paragraph, saying why Clemens, after putatively retiring from the Yankees, had somehow, some way summoned the strength to play once again. He simply, Lopez wrote, had yet to accomplish “what his family always wanted and what could finally be the sweet goodbye for him, his home, his family, the Astros. Everything he ever loved.”

What, nothing about the troops overseas? Anyway, we naturally enough kind of gave up on the Chronat that point. But then came the Fox pregame show, which featured Clemens telling a crowd of sportswriters at a press conference -- which is as good as any venue, we guess, for talking sincerely about your innermost feelings for a dead parent -- that “a big part of my heart [is] missing with my mother gone.”

We know Clemens’s mother died earlier this year, mostly because the Houston media couldn’t stop saying how incredible it was that he somehow pitched on the day she left this mortal coil. And it’s sad enough when anyone’s mom dies.

But come on -- you already can do no wrong here in Houston, Rocket. Maybe you don’t have to play the dead-mom card quiteso hard. Just let the media do it for you.

Nobly taking the mound Saturday, Clemens went on to throw pretty well for a few innings. By the fifth, though, he was taking more time between pitches than Bruce Springsteen takes between songs on stage with the E Street Band nowadays. You take that, and his throwing over to first a few dozen times whenever there’s an at-bat with a runner on, and let’s just say you don’t have to worry about missing much if you get up for another beer. (Or switch over to the Notre Dame-USC game, about which the less said the better.)

We weren’t quite sure what to think when we switched from the football game to the bottom of the fifth and saw Clemens actually leading off as a batter. “What is this elderly man still doing in the game?” we thought.

Sure enough, he gave up the tying run in the top of the sixth. The Astros scored in the bottom of the inning, though, so he could pick up the win and continue the Greatest Story Line Ever Told.

Quote of the day: Former first lady Barbara Bush saying she and her husband had rushed to the park after coming in from Kennebunkport. “We have not even been home yet,” she declared.

“We wanted to stay in the Astrodome on a cot, since that’s worked out so well for all those black folks, but unfortunately it’s no longer open,” she didn’t add.

Publication date: October 14

Game Two: The Lone Gunman Comes Through

We pick a new nickname for Roy Oswalt

America’s sports media loves nicknames, especially when it comes to baseball. ESPN’s Chris Berman has made a career out of such things as Wade “Cranberry” Boggs and Bud “Paint It” Black.

So why doesn’t anyone call the Astros’ best pitcher Roy “Lee Harvey” Oswalt?

Yes, it’s pronounced “OZE-walt,” but big deal. It’s a nickname that you can really use. “He’s hitting the corners like they were JFK’s skull!” or “And you thought his namesakehad good aim!” If he didn’t have his good stuff and the manager had to come to the mound to take him out, the announcers could say, “Uh-oh. Looks like someone let Jack Ruby into the parking garage.”

Maybe not. At any rate, Lee Harvey had his Mannlicher-Carcano of a right arm in fine form last night, mowing down Cardinals like they were a bunch of sexed-up Irish-Catholic cold warriors asking not what their country could do for them. (And, with that last sentence, we bring an official end to the “Lee Harvey” Oswalt era.)

Even when he faltered and had two Cardinals on base, Oswalt seemed in complete command of things. The only blemish was giving up a monster home run to Albert Pujols, which delayed the game for five minutes while everyone waited for Pujols to stop admiring his dinger and actually take a step toward first base. Pujols was absolutely fascinatedby his homer; it apparently took a massive act of will to turn away from it and round the bases.

Since we’ve given up on the “Lee Harvey” theme, here’s one for all the gals (and gays) out there: Anyone thinking All About Evewhen it comes to Oswalt? The night before, at batting practice, he lines a shot off Andy Pettitte’s knee and Pettitte goes on to stink up the joint; Oswalt comes in and earns raves. Look out, Margo -- it’s going to be a bumpy night, indeed. (We now return to our regularly scheduled manly programming.)

Most disturbing information line of the night: Adam Everett was minor-league roommates with the Cardinals’ David Eckstein. In case you’ve never seen mug shots of these guys, Eckstein looks like he’s about 11 years old, and Everett has ears that give him the wingspan of a 747. Put them together in the same room and you’d tremble for your species.

Fox has continued, by the way, to assault us with the Dirt Cam. Every time they do, it’s difficult not to think of some dumpy middle-aged guy getting arrested at the mall for shooting pictures up women’s skirts on the escalator. (The Fox director no doubt is a fan of www.upskirt.com, which declares that “The latest digital camcorder and pinhole cam technology rocks the house!”)

Game Three is next, with Roger Clemens starting. We fully expect to be told several times that his three-inning relief stint against the Braves was mankind’s crowning achievement here on earth, or perhaps some combination of the Bataan Death March, inventing the polio vaccine and the Born to Runalbum.

For his sake, we hope he isn’t on the field while Oswalt is taking batting practice. Lee Harvey ain’t into sharing the spotlight.

Publication date: October 13

Jesus Ain't My Homeboy Tonight

The Astros have a lot to ponder after their first playoffs outing against the Cards

The Astros, as anyone who follows the team knows, are a very religious bunch. Guys like Lance Berkman, Craig Biggio and Morgan Ensberg wear their faith on their sleeves, trotting out God at every opportunity in order to butter up the Big Man. ("The Big Man" being not God, but owner and fellow Bible-thumper Drayton McLane. Although Astros employees sometimes confuse the two.)

The über-est of the über-Christians is pitcher Andy Pettitte, who's written a book about it all. Unfortunately, it appears God was watching the Angels-White Sox game last night. (And rooting -- strangely enough -- against the Angels, if umpire Doug Eddings's bizarre call is any indication.)

Pettitte took the mound last night as the Astros' ace. If he asked "What Would Jesus Do?" like a good Christian does, apparently the answer came back "Jesus would pitch like shit."

Cardinal Reggie Sanders has played for seven different teams in the last eight years; during his entire career he's batted .188 in the playoffs. It took only a few pitches from Pettitte last night to make him a post-season star.

Sanders pounded a homer to give the Cards a first-inning lead; but Pettitte wasn't done yet. He gave up five runs in six innings and never looked in command.

In the locker room after the game, an angry Pettitte wailed to the sky. "Father, Father, why hast thou forsaken me?" he cried, as puzzled and decidedly nonreligious sportswriters looked around for his dad.

Actually, Pettitte said all the right things, as is his noble wont. "I was just terrible," he said.

But then again, if you're one of the good-guy Astros, you can always be sure the Houston Chronicle will have your back. The first paragraph of its lead game story dealt with Pettitte getting hit by a ball in pregame batting practice; the second graf nominated Pettitte for sainthood: "Despite needing medication to numb the pain on the severely swollen knee, Pettitte refused to make any excuses for his loss against the St. Louis Cardinals." And when the clubhouse buffet was found to be inadequate, Pettitte rustled up some loaves and fishes for everyone, the paper didn't go on to report.

It's clear enough that God isn't going to get the 'Stros to the World Series. Whether the bats will is only a little less clear. Biggio spent Game 1, and all of the extra-inning marathon against the Braves, flailing at low-and-outside pitches that had everyone scratching their heads as to what exactly he thought was hittable about balls two feet outside the strike zone. He went 0 for 7 against the Braves and 0 for 3 against the Cards.

Lowlight of Game 1: "When we come back, it'll be the top of the ninth and the Astros will be sending Lane, Lamb and Everett to the plate."

Oddity of the television broadcast: the worm's-eye view of Fox's "Dirt-Cam," or whatever they're calling it. Because looking up into ballplayers' crotches adds so much to the game.

Question of the night: At what point in the evening does Cardinal manager Tony La Russa take off his sunglasses? He probably thought he looked like a rock star. Someone should tell him he looks like Grandpa with astigmatism.

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