HOUSTON -- With one swing of the bat, Albert Pujols almost silenced the roaring crowd in the ninth inning at Minute Maid Park on Sunday.
"I've learned that you kind of listen to the sound of the bat," said Drayton McLane, the intrepid Astros owner who has had the team for 12 years and is just itching to bring the club to the World Series for the first time in its history. "It didn't look like a home run, but you never know sometimes."
Jason Lane, a ninth-inning defensive replacement in left field for Craig Biggio, almost had his back to the out-of-town scoreboard when he pulled down the drive off reliever Brad Lidge. Larry Walker had walked, and the poke would've given the Cardinals a one-run lead. Instead, 42,760 sighed in unison and Scott Rolen then struck out, ending a 6-5, Game 4 thriller that tied the best-of-seven National League Championship Series, 2-2.
"I'll tell you what, I've never seen a hitter as strong as he is," said Lidge, who recorded his second save of the series in as many days. "The last pitch he actually hit with one hand. It was kind of in the dirt, and he pushed it back to the warning track."
While Cardinals hitters like Tony Womack (.118) and Edgar Renteria (.071) have disappeared so far in the series, Pujols has been like a charged up Energizer Bunny -- he just keeps going and going.
He kindly declined to talk to reporters after the Cardinals squandered their 2-0 series lead, but if he's upset, it's not his doing.
Pujols went 3-for-4 and hit his third NLCS homer, a two-run shot off Roy Oswalt three batters into the game after Walker had strolled, giving the Cards a 2-0 lead at that juncture of the game.
His fourth-inning, two-out single scored Womack with the run that gave St. Louis a 5-3 advantage.
But Pujols can only carry the offense. He can't pitch. He's batting .600 (9-for-15) against the Astros with three homers, six RBIs and six runs scored. If you take out his 0-for-3 on Saturday against Roger Clemens in a 5-2 loss, Pujols is 9-for 12 with the three homers, six RBIs and six runs scored against all the other Houston pitchers.
Albert Pujols / 1B
Weight: 225 lbs
Bats: R / Throws: R
Pujols has been the answer for the Cardinals to the job Carlos Beltran has done for the Astros. Beltran already has eight postseason homers, tying a record set two years ago by Barry Bonds when his San Francisco Giants went to the seventh game of the World Series before losing to the Angels.
Pujols has already hit five homers this postseason.
"I don't like to see Pujols in the batter's box, I've got to be honest with you," said Beltran, who's batting .538 (7-for-13) in the series with four homers and five RBIs. "It's not that I don't trust in Lidge, but Albert's so good he can hit the ball out of the ballpark against anyone."
Beltran has set a record by hitting a homer in five consecutive postseason games, but Pujols did it in three straight, winning Game 4 of the NL Division Series last Sunday at Dodger Stadium, burying Los Angeles with a three-run poke.
He did it again in Game 1 of the NLCS on Wednesday night, responding to Beltran's first-inning, two-run homer with a two-run shot of his own in the bottom of the inning.
And when he came to bat to lead off the eighth inning against Houston reliever Dan Miceli on Thursday night in Game 2, Pujols sent a long drive into the left-field seats at Busch Stadium that didn't seem to want to come down. That homer gave the Cardinals a 6-4 victory and what seemed then to be a commanding 2-0 series lead.
With his dinger in Game 4, Albert Pujols climbed back over Larry Walker for the St. Louis Cardinals' postseason home run record:
That's why when Pujols lifted a 1-and-2 Lidge pitch that the right-hander tried to keep out of the strike zone, the drive was so ominous in its potential for Astros fans.
"Obviously, at that time, I didn't want to make a mistake," said Lidge, who wasn't even the closer until June, when Octavio Dotel was sent to the A's in the three-team trade that netted the Astros the great Beltran. "He's a premier power hitter. I'm just going to go after him with my best stuff, but at the same time I didn't want to fall behind."
The ball went up in the air, creating a collective gasp and the possibility that the Astros might fall behind. But not this time. Not in the ninth inning on Sunday.
"He hit it with one hand all the way to the warning track," McLane said with admiration. "It just shows how incredibly strong and what a great hitter he really is."
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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