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Seven help us10/20/2004 10:55 PM ET
By John Schlegel / MLB.com
ST. LOUIS -- You could call it Game 7, which it is. You could call it Game 25 of the season between the Cardinals and the Astros, which it is.
But really it's The Game, as in the only game that matters now to the two combatants in the National League Championship Series.
When the Cardinals host the Astros in Game 7 of the NLCS at Busch Stadium on Thursday, two teams that know each other very well will have one last chance to meet, with a berth in the World Series at stake.
Sound familiar? It's a lot like the ALCS, and that also goes for the entertainment value and high level of competition between two talented teams playing on the October stage.
And it all comes down to The Game.
"This is what it's all about," the Cardinals' Game 6 hero Jim Edmonds said. "I think we all watched TV as kids and we hear all the stuff [the media] say and write and show us. We finally get to play in Game 7.
"I mean, it's better than going home."
No doubt. After Thursday's game, somebody will.
This marks the second consecutive year both championship games have gone to a Game 7, the only two times that has ever happened. With the NL Central foes vying for their division's first spot ever in the World Series, it's a fitting end to a season series that has been among the tightest in baseball this year.
The Astros won the season series 10-8, and the two teams have each won three home games in this NLCS heading into the game to end all games between the two in 2004.
Houston relishes the opportunity to send Roger Clemens to the mound in a situation made for his Hall of Fame credentials. He'll meet up with Jeff Suppan, once a pupil of The Rocket's in the Boston organization and now representing the Cardinals in the biggest start of his life.
Obviously, the way Clemens -- a surprise prize for the Astros this past offseason, signing with his hometown team after he'd retired -- pitches in his fourth career Game 7 start will go a long way toward determining the outcome of this one.
"We need a good performance out of him," Astros manager Phil Garner said. "We need a good performance out of our offense.
"Just like this series has been all along, it will be, I'm sure, another good game, probably another close game."
If a thrilling trend continues, we won't know the victor until the last bat is swung. With the Astros' Jeff Kent ending Game 5 in Houston with a homer and the Cardinals' Jim Edmonds returning the favor in Game 6, two consecutive postseason games in one series were decided by walk-off home runs for the first time ever.
The Astros' Carlos Beltran and the Cardinals' Albert Pujols have been playing a game of one-upsmanship throughout this series, and they head into Game 7 tied with four others for the most homers in an LCS, with four apiece. Of course, it's never about one or two players, so the stars on both sides will be shooting for the ultimate prize -- the National League pennant.
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa believes that not only the basic fact the Cardinals won Game 6 at home but the way they did could have some carryover effect on Game 7.
But it could very well have a positive effect on both clubs, La Russa said.
"I think if you looked at every game in this series, we won Game 1 dramatically and they were ready for Game 2," La Russa said. "We got our hearts broken in Game 3, we were ready in Game 4. These two clubs are so professional, we'll both be ready to play."
On Wednesday, the Cardinals faced their stiffest test of character of the season, and they passed it. After cruising to the NL Central title with 105 victories, the Cardinals proved without a doubt that they can come through with their backs against the wall as well.
The Astros, meanwhile, have been proving that for the last couple of months, and they're determined to prove it again.
"We've been down this road before," said Jeff Bagwell, who tied Game 6 with a clutch single with two outs in the ninth. "We've been backed into a corner before and we've always found a way to bounce back."
This time, the stakes couldn't be higher.
Cardinals reliever Ray King speaks for everyone in both dugouts when he lays it on the line about Game 7.
"We're playing for the whole year," King said. "Lose, you go home. Win, you go on. I just want to keep playing."
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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