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Astros staff ready to take it to Cards
10/12/2004 8:42 PM ET
ST. LOUIS -- It's enough to give opposing pitchers a permanent case of the queasies.

The St. Louis Cardinals led the National League in runs and hits, in slugging percentage and RBIs, red-faced foes and high-fives. Just for openers.

Scary good, they are. 105 victories. Albert Pujols with 48 dingers and 133 runs scored. Scott Rolen, 124 ribbies. Jim Edmonds, .643 slugging percentage. They can change the game on one pitch.

The Redbirds ran away with the National League Central Division title by 13 games over Houston, led the loop with a .278 average and left many a pitcher wondering if he should find another line of work.

But you won't find Houston hurlers quaking in their spikes as they prepare to face these monsters of the midwest in the National League Championship Series, which begins Wednesday night at Busch Stadium.

"You can't be reluctant to throw strikes," said Astros' pitching coach Jim Hickey. "What I try to tell them is force the contact and not allow the contact -- not the 2-0, 3-1 counts where you're allowing them to hit it.

"This is probably a more potent lineup than most, but there's some good ones out there," said Hickey, whose mantra is to stick with the game plan. "You work quick, throw strikes, change speeds and take it to them."

Houston's Game 1 starter Brandon Backe has piercing blue eyes, and he says the eyes can mirror a person's feelings. Like fear. Like trepidation.

While his heart may be pounding come game time, he'll stare into the hitter's box like he owns the place, no matter which Cardinal is there.

"It's like being around a dog," said Backe, 5-3 with a 4.30 ERA this season over 33 games. "If you show fear, the dog is going to sense it and he's going to get you. Same way with baseball or anything. No matter what I'm feeling inside, I have to show that I think I'm better than those guys, no matter who steps into that box."

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Backe says he'll pitch his game without being intimidated.

"I've got to hit my spots and keep them off-balance -- that's all I've got to do," said the right-hander, who owns a nasty curve and changeup. "They're gonna score runs off me, no doubt about that. But if I go five or six innings and don't give up a run, it'll be impressive."

The 26-year-old is in the biggest game of his life, but he'll be happy if the Astros are ahead, no matter the inning he departs.

"I don't care if it's 20-19 or 1-0," he laughed. "As long as we're ahead."

Right-hander Dan Wheeler, 3-1 with a 4.29 ERA over 46 games this season, is well aware of whom he'll be facing, but isn't worried.

"The thought process is it doesn't matter who's coming up," he said. "Obviously, you realize when Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen come up -- you can probably go through the whole lineup -- you have to really watch your pitches with every single one of them.

"You just focus on making pitches and block everything out," said Wheeler, "and I think I can get anybody out. They're all here for a reason -- you have to be careful."

Houston Astros vs. St. Louis Cardinals
Game 1 at St. Louis         STL 10, HOU 7
Game 2 at St. Louis Thu. Oct. 14 8:00 p.m. FOX  
Game 3 at Houston Sat. Oct. 16 4:00 p.m. FOX  
Game 4 at Houston Sun. Oct. 17 4:00 p.m. FOX  
Game 5* at Houston Mon. Oct. 18 8:00 p.m. FOX  
Game 6* at St. Louis Wed. Oct. 20 4:00 p.m. FOX  
Game 7* at St. Louis Thu. Oct. 21 8:00 p.m. FOX  
 * If necessary

It won't be easy. Wheeler says the hitters are trained to pick up spins, look for a certain pitch, use counts to their advantage. A multitude of factors are involved.

"It's a challenge," he said. "Am I going to execute my pitch or is he going to execute his swing? It's a battle in the game, a game within a game. That's the fun part. They're beatable -- hey, the best hitters fail 70 percent of the time."

Closer Brad Lidge says pitchers can study opposing hitters' tendencies all they want, but, ultimately, have to pitch their game.

"Bottom line, you have to hit the mitt," said Lidge. "I'm going to throw this pitch, so I'd better get it up or better get it in or out -- it better be where you want it. Otherwise, you're gonna get hurt by these guys."

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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