HOUSTON -- This is how much Carlos Beltran has gotten to the Cardinals in the National League Championship Series: He helped Jeff Kent hit a three-run, walk-off home run.
With closer Jason Isringhausen rushing his delivery in order to keep Beltran from stealing third, Kent obliterated the first pitch he saw high and deep to left field. The majestic blast scored Beltran and Lance Berkman and ended one of the most compelling playoff games in memory.
Hometown heroes Woody Williams and Brandon Backe combined to pitch 15 innings of two-hit shutout ball, but neither figured in the decision. Houston took Game 5 of the NLCS, 3-0.
The Cards, who came to Houston with a 2-0 series lead, return home trailing 3-2 -- their first deficit of the postseason. They must win back-to-back games at Busch Stadium in order to advance to the World Series for the first time since 1987.
Beltran led off the ninth with a single against Isringhausen, who had cruised through a perfect eighth. After Jeff Bagwell flied out, Beltran stole second base, prompting the Cards to walk Berkman intentionally -- despite a 2-2 count against the switch-hitter. Kent, no stranger to game-winning homers against St. Louis, hit another to cast this series in a completely new light.
"It was just a cutter over the middle of the plate," said Isringhausen. "I was trying to be a little quicker with Beltran on second. I didn't want him going to third. I just got out ahead of my throw. A cutter that didn't really cut too much, and it went over the plate. He's a pretty experienced hitter, and it's a short porch in left. It's a bad pitch on my part."
The decision to put Berkman on base was questioned, but hard to quibble with. The Cards had already made their call even before the switch-hitter came to the plate. If Beltran stole second, the Redbirds were putting Berkman on and taking their chances with Kent.
"We set it up," said manager Tony La Russa. "Izzy goes 2-2, he's not going to give him anything to hit. He's going to play around with the edges of the strike zone. Suppose it bounces and that guy goes to third. You're better off not trying to get too cute. He threw a cutter, got it up a little bit, [and Kent] hit it in the seats. If he got it down, maybe it was a double-play ball."
Williams, a native and resident of the Houston area, lasted seven brilliant innings before giving way to a pinch-hitter. Only one Astro reached second base against him -- Berkman was hit by a pitch and advanced to second on a walk in the fourth.
But Williams was no better than Backe, who hails from nearby Galveston, Texas. The young right-hander carried a perfect game into the fifth inning and a no-hitter into the sixth.
Since the NLCS adopted the seven-game format in 1985, there have been three occasions where a team trailed 3 games to 2 in a series heading home for the final two games. The results:
Lost in six
Won in seven
Lost in six
Tony Womack broke up the no-no bid when he singled through the right side. Larry Walker followed with a walk, providing what passed for a great scoring chance in this game, but Albert Pujols popped up the first pitch he saw to end the threat.
"A good pitch to handle," Pujols said, "and I just popped up to second. I can't do it every time."
It was a rough night for Pujols, who went 0-for-4 with a strikeout and did not hit a ball out of the infield.
Pitching in one of the league's coziest ballparks, where he was pummeled three weeks earlier, Williams made himself at home. Which, of course, he is.
He used his full complement of pitches, got ahead of hitters and generally looked like Woody Williams looks on a good night. Williams benefited from some outstanding defense, but he also accomplished the two most critical objectives for any pitcher at Minute Maid Park -- keep the ball in the yard and don't hand out free passes. He issued two walks.
"It was just a joy to be able to go out there and pitch in that ballgame," Williams said. "The magnitude, the fans the way they were, everything riding on it. I played baseball for 30 years just to have an opportunity to pitch in that ballgame.
Woody Williams / P
Weight: 200 lbs
Bats: R / Throws: R
"I just got matched by Backe. He threw a great game."
Backe was sensational, but like Williams he had plenty of help from the guys behind him. Or, put another way, the Redbirds hit into some terrible luck.
Reggie Sanders screamed a line drive right at third baseman Morgan Ensberg to open the third, and saw a 420-foot out fall into Beltran's glove in the eighth. Williams hit a rope that second baseman Kent barely had to move to make a play on.
And Edgar Renteria, who has struggled mightily in the NLCS, may have received the least justice of all. Renteria ripped what looked like a gap double with two outs in the seventh, and Beltran made a full-extension diving catch to keep the All-Star shortstop 1-for-the-series.
"What's new?" said Renteria, who has hit into terrible luck all season.
Matthew Leach 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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