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Game balls: Rating Game 7
10/22/2004 12:10 AM ET
MLB.com is awarding "game balls" -- or, in this case, cowboy boots -- as the boys from Houston so often wear -- and arches -- to represent St. Louis as the Gateway to the West -- for performances in this year's National League Championship Series. Here's a look at who is at the top of the arch and who is feeling like kicking themselves after the Redbirds' NL pennant-clinching Game 7 win.

Astros

Five cowboy boots: Freshly shined and a perfect fit, ready for some serious two-stepping
Four cowboy boots: The first choice for a night on the town
Three cowboy boots: A few scuff marks, but no one will notice
Two cowboy boots: Showing serious signs of wear
One cowboy boot: Somebody stepped in something

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Roger Clemens: The Rocket has been one of this generation's best big-game pitchers, and he showed it again in this duel. Though he fearlessly fired fastball after fastball and looked like a six-time Cy Young Award winner, back-to-back heaters to Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen in the sixth inning made Clemens pay for relying so much on one pitch. He deserved more offensive support, but as was written in this space after Game 3, if this is his final game, he appropriately finished with a strikeout.

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Craig Biggio: He led off the first inning in each of the last three games with groundouts, but started off Thursday's game on a perfect note, driving a Jeff Suppan changeup deep to left. Biggio's second home run of the postseason -- he hadn't homered in any of his previous four playoff series -- gave Clemens a lead before he took the mound, a major psychological boost for any pitcher. Problem was, it was the only hit from the Killer B's all night.

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Carlos Beltran: He looked more like a leadoff hitter the way he manufactured a run in the third inning without a base hit. Beltran followed a four-pitch walk with a steal of second base, then a daring dash to third base on a fly ball to center. A bad bounce on the throw into third, and Beltran headed home with a 2-0 Houston lead. Houstonians can only hope that's not the last highlight they'll have of Beltran in an Astros uniform.

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Brad Ausmus: Again, not a great night at the plate for Ausmus, who was the victim of Jim Edmonds' diving catch in the second inning before striking out another time with two runners on base. He stranded four runners on base on the night. But it's Ausmus' defense and pitch-calling that make him so valuable, and he flashed it again when he caught Tony Womack straying off first base as the potential tying run in the fifth.

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Phil Garner: He juggled the pitching staff about as well as he could over the final few games, and he might've tried a squeeze bunt in the late innings if he had a chance. But an offense that was left hitless after the fourth inning and a bullpen limited to starter Roy Oswalt and a slew of tired arms didn't give Garner much of an opportunity to be daring. He said when he left the Tigers he didn't have much to manage there by the end. Garner finally had a chance to show what he could do in this series, and getting this group to the doorstep of the World Series was a feat.

Cardinals
Five arches: On top of the world
Four arches: Clear view down-river
Three arches: Walker underneath
Two arches: Saw it in the guidebook
One arch: I thought you said St. Paul

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Jim Edmonds: Zero runs driven in, one run allowed on a hard-luck throwing error, but at least two Houston runs prevented. Edmonds' outstretched, diving catch of Ausmus' drive to left-center was a game-changer, taking away a two-run double that would've given the Astros a 3-0 lead. It probably won't be mentioned in the same category as Willie Mays' famous over-the-shoulder catch on Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series, but it won't be far off. At least, it shouldn't be.

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Albert Pujols: There must be a way to pitch to this guy carefully with runners on base, or so Red Sox fans hope. A two-strike fastball over the plate is not it, no matter what Hall of Fame credentials belong to the arm throwing it. The sixth-inning RBI double into the left-field corner tied the game before he scored the go-ahead run one pitch later. Pujols' .500 batting average for the series is actually underrated considering the quality of pitchers he hit over some of these games.

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Scott Rolen: He came within feet of punishing Clemens in the fourth inning, when he flied out to the shadow of the center-field fence. The fence wasn't going to hold his next drive in the sixth, when Rolen took Clemens' first-pitch fastball down the left-field line. Rolen didn't finish the series with the gaudy stats Pujols enjoyed, but nearly all of his hits were timely.

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Jeff Suppan: He seemed headed for an early exit while he tried to find the location on his breaking ball. When Suppan recovered, he was every bit as dominant as Clemens, starting a six-inning stretch that saw the Astros go hitless following Morgan Ensberg's fourth-inning single. At the plate, Suppan's squeeze bunt showed an incredible amount of faith from manager Tony La Russa in a pitcher who spent most of his career watching others bat for him in the American League. Part of the Cardinals' success in this series was about depth in pitching, including a third starter who outpitched a future Hall of Famer and Cy Young Award candidate.

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Tony Womack: The spasms in his back couldn't keep him from a being a pain in the neck to the Astros, even from the seventh spot in the order. Some healthy runners might not have tried taking the extra base on his liner to left-center in the third inning, let alone guys worried about their back locking up. Womack was still fast enough to get halfway to home plate by the time Suppan laid down his squeeze bunt. That bravado created a run; Womack's strides off first base and slow feet coming back to the bag denied a chance for another one.

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


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