HOUSTON -- You can't blame Woody Williams if he feels a lump in his throat when he hears "The Eyes of Texas Are Upon You," for it's here where his memories were born, where he would darn near roast to medium-well in the summer sun playing ball.
It's where he became a man, and where he became a pitcher.
Now he's back "home" on the biggest baseball stage of his career, feeling a dichotomy of emotions preparing for Game 5 of the National League Championship Series at Minute Maid Park, with some 50 Texas-grown family members' eyes upon him but not boisteriously cheering him.
He's a St. Louis Cardinal, after all. Maybe Gregory Scott Williams grew up with a southwestern twang and great Mexican food in a town where pickup trucks outnumber longhorn cattle, but Woody would love to rope these Astros and tie their legs together lickety-split on Monday night.
It's a biggie. With St. Louis dropping a 6-5 decision to the Killer B's and pals on Sunday in Game 4, you can argue -- and not lose -- that this is game is vital, with the series knotted at 2 and the winner of Game 5 a victory away from a trip to the World Series.
"It's 2-2, and it's a new series now," said reliever Julian Tavarez, who gave up a solo homer to Carlos Beltran in the seventh to break a 5-5 tie in Game 4. "We have Woody Williams, and we all know what kind of bulldog he is. We're expecting a great game from him tomorrow."
Mixed feelings for Williams? Sure. Yet the 38-year-old veteran won't be wearing cowboy boots on the hill, only Redbirds cleats, and the lone sidearm he'll be carrying is that strong right arm, loaded with one of the best cut fastbals in the game.
"The [family members] are just a drop in the bucket, but knowing they're in the stadium and rooting for me, it's going to feel good, and it's going to be a lot fun to pitch in this atmosphere," said Williams, who won Game 1 of the NLCS at his in-season Missouri digs.
"I know it's big for the city of Houston," said Williams. "It's just nice, as a resident of the city, to see how the city has backed them."
The last time the mustachioed Williams pitched at Minute Maid Park against Houston was on Sept. 27, and it was about as pretty as a tumbleweed, as the 12-year veteran lasted only three innings, giving up 10 hits and eight runs in a 10-3 rout.
But he also whomped the Astros by the same 10-3 score in May, and there's something special about being a step closer to the World Series. He knows he's in the sunset of his pitching seasons, and opportunities for a championship ring are few.
One thing's for sure, Williams isn't letting the atmosphere get to him, despite the country-music tunes wafting through his head and all those distant cousins and kin eager for tickets and a chance to chat with the hurler.
"So far, it's been a lot of fun," he said. "I think people are being very respectful. During the season everyone's excited, but I think everyone knows the importance of these games. It hasn't been that hectic for me. You can ask my wife, [Kimberly]. She may give you another answer."
Come Monday, you can throw all that cliche stuff about a local boy making good, because in his competitive heart, the Astros are the bad hombres, the opposition, and he wears the Cardinal red with pride and professionalism.
He'll be totally focused on Monday. No distractions, no reservations, and it won't matter a hill of beans that he's deep in the heart of Texas.
Woody Williams / P
Weight: 200 lbs
Bats: R / Throws: R
"I feel every outing I have during the season -- every start, every chance I get to go out there and pitch -- is very important. But, obviously, it doesn't compare to the meaning of tomorrow's game, one way or another. Bottom line, I have to go out there and just do the best I can and try not to make many mistakes."
Williams will concentrate on location, and he's well aware of Houston's power and the likes of center fielder Carlos Beltran, who was a mere 11 years old when the Cardinals starter first began professional ball.
St. Louis and Houston will hook up for the 11th time in little more than a month on Monday, so there's no secrets or surprises in store. But that's what makes ballgames, and Williams is prepared.
"It's kind of a cat-and-mouse deal, where I know what they want to do, their strengths and weaknesses, and they know exactly what I throw, and what I try to do," he said. "So it's my job, and it's a difficult task, of staying one step ahead, and if I'm not out-thinking them, I have to make sure I do locate my pitches very well."
For the hometown Texan, it'll be close to riding a Brahman bull in a rodeo -- and he's hoping to hang on for eight, nine innings before the whistle blows.
Rich Draper is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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