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Astros like their aces in the hole
10/14/2004 10:27 PM ET
HOUSTON -- Back at home but down by two games in the best-of-seven National League Championship Series, the Astros know their postseason future is cloudy.

But they can see the silver lining.

Actually, two of them.

Their names are Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt, the Astros' Cy Young Award candidates. With Clemens pitching Saturday's crucial Game 3 and Oswalt going in Game 4, the Astros remain confident, despite coming out of St. Louis empty-handed.

"Yes, we are," Astros manager Phil Garner said after Thursday's loss. "Those guys have been our horses all year. We'll turn to them now and ask them to do what they've been doing all year, and that's win for us."

Saturday's 4 p.m. ET start of Game 3 will pit Clemens (18-4, 2.98 ERA regular season; 1-0, 3.00 postseason) against the Cardinals' Jeff Suppan (16-9, 4.16 regular season; 1-0, 2.57 ERA postseason) -- and, of course, the potent St. Louis lineup.

With Clemens not even skipping a beat in his surprise, post-retirement season in his hometown, and Oswalt racking up a 20-10 mark and 3.49 ERA in his breakout campaign, the Astros have to feel good about their chances of evening up the series.

But Garner contends the Astros don't need to lean on their big-time starters so much that it all depends on them the next couple of games.

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"We've been playing confidently anyway," Garner said. "So I don't think you're going to see that much difference. But when you are struggling, and when we did struggle, that's when you noticed a big difference."

Clemens has been down this kind of road before. Of course, there are not a whole lot of scenarios where that doesn't apply for the 42-year-old future Hall of Famer.

"I think I can find a number of situations, they might not be playoff situations, but I've been in pretty tough situations where you're backed in the corner," Clemens said Friday. "But it's nice to be back at home."

Clemens and Oswalt are as well equipped as anyone in the National League to shut down any opposing lineup. Such a performance might actually reward the Astros' own offense -- which scored 11 runs in the first two games, thanks in large part to the continuation of Carlos Beltran's monster postseason.

Then again, the Cardinals' offense is always a storm building on the horizon, and it has have a little more thunder back in the fold now that Scott Rolen broke out for two homers in St. Louis' 6-4 victory in Game 2. Larry Walker and Albert Pujols also went deep as St. Louis ran its scoring average to 6.3 runs a game through the first six games of the postseason, despite a shutout in Game 3 of the Division Series against Los Angeles.

The level of confidence in the Cardinals clubhouse is high, but the job isn't done.

"We've taken care of the home-field advantage, but there's nobody whooping it up in that dugout or that clubhouse," Cards manager Tony La Russa said. "I mean, we're going into a tough place to play against a very good team."

And, La Russa very well might have added, against two very good starting pitchers.

Facts machine
With just four strikeouts in Game 3, Roger Clemens could take over second place on Major League Baseball's all-time LCS strikeout list:
Date Results
John Smoltz89
Greg Maddux64
Tom Glavine62
Roger Clemens61
Mike Mussina59
Clemens' 61 strikeouts in ALCS play are tops on the all-time list, but Mike Mussina may take over the lead if he gets another start in this year's series. Smoltz's 89 strikeouts lead the NLCS

But starting pitching wasn't the big problem for the Astros these first two games in St. Louis. Brandon Backe wasn't great, but he left Wednesday's Game 1 with the game very much still within reach. Pete Munro was pretty darn good through his four shutout innings in Thursday's Game 2, especially considering he hadn't pitched in two weeks, before running out of gas in the fifth.

Each night, it was against the Astros' bullpen that the Cardinals did most of their damage. They did it with little things against Chad Qualls in Game 1, and some really big blasts against Chad Harville and Dan Miceli in Game 2.

As they prepare to host their first NLCS game since 1986, the Astros go into Minute Maid Park with the sense that they're still very much in this thing.

Making such a remarkable run to the Wild Card berth and through the Division Series has the Astros pretty well steeled against adversity.

"I don't think we feel intimidated or down whatsoever," said third baseman Morgan Ensberg, who homered and later knocked in the tying run in the seventh inning Thursday. "I think we're just in a bad spot. Of course, we've been playing four months in a bad spot, so we're in a very familiar area."

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

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