10/20/2004 8:21 PM ET
Despite loss, Astros in good shape
Houston has rested Clemens ready for Game 7
|Pete Munro struggled in Game 6, but Phil Garner made the right move by starting him. (James Finley/AP)
ST. LOUIS -- Phil Garner had the right idea, even if though it turned out wrong for the Houston Astros.
If you had told Houston before Game 6 of the National League Championship Series that Pete Munro, Chad Harville, Chad Qualls and Dan Wheeler would hold St. Louis to four runs in eight innings with Brad Lidge on to pitch the ninth, the Astros would have felt very good about their chances of winning the game and advancing to the World Series.
The Astros averaged nearly seven runs a game during their late-season hot streak, and they came into Wednesday's game averaging 6.1 per game for the postseason.
You would think holding the Cardinals to four runs through 11 innings would get the job done. Just because it didn't work on Wednesday doesn't mean Garner's decision won't pay dividends for Houston on Thursday. The Astros let a chance to clinch slip through their fingers, but they go into Game 7 with a stronger pitching hand than they would have had they used Roger Clemens on short rest to start Game 6.
As several of Clemens' teammates were quick to point out, the pitching was not the sole culprit in this loss.
"To beat the Cardinals, you're usually thinking six or seven [runs] might get it done," Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell said. "We didn't lose this game because of our pitching. The bullpen did a fantastic job, we just didn't get to the point where we could scratch out that run to put us ahead."
Houston wound up losing, 6-4, in 12 innings when St. Louis center fielder Jim Edmonds hit a walk-off homer off Dan Miceli to even the NLCS at three games apiece.
By starting Munro, who allowed four runs on eight hits in 2 1/3 innings, the Astros at least have a rested Clemens to pitch Game 7. They also will have Roy Oswalt, who led the National League in victories, ready to pitch out of the bullpen, though it would be on three days' rest for the right-hander.
If there is a down side for Houston in this game -- besides the loss, obviously -- it wasn't starting Munro, but having to use Lidge for three innings.
Lidge, who pitched three perfect innings before giving way to Miceli, expects to be available to pitch perhaps one inning. Lidge has pitched eight dominating innings in the series, all in the last four games. He threw 32 pitches on Wednesday, including 25 strikes.
Yet even the decision to stick with Lidge is hard to second-guess. Garner had to go for the win when the Astros tied the game in the ninth inning. He had no choice but to stay with Lidge and hope the offense could push across a run. That never happened, and Lidge went as long as he could.
When Lidge's string ran out, so did Houston's, as only Miceli, Russ Springer and left-hander Mike Gallo remained. Of those three, Miceli has been the most reliable this season.
"Our bullpen did an outstanding job," Bagwell said. "They had what, eight scoreless innings before [Edmonds hit] the homer? They did their job. We just didn't put enough runs on the board."
Though Garner kept his big guns, except for Lidge, holstered, the Astros almost pulled off an improbable road victory and also forced the Cardinals to stretch their bullpen a little further.
That too, could be a significant factor on Thursday.
"It was a tough ballgame, but I think it means a lot that we battled back and made [the game] go to extra innings," center fielder Carlos Beltran said. "They were fighting to stay alive, and we didn't make it easy for them."
The Astros stranded nine baserunners, including four in scoring position.
"That was the frustrating thing for us all day, we only put one run on the board at a time," Garner said. "We didn't string together hits; we couldn't get any offense generated. So that was our frustration, and it ended up costing us in the end. We just couldn't somehow get another run or get them in."
In hindsight, Garner said he absolutely did not regret his decision to start Munro. The righty just wasn't sharp. He took one for the team and might have wound up a hero had the offense been up to its usual level of effectiveness.
"That lineup's a tough task for any pitcher," Astros left fielder Craig Biggio said. "We had chances, we just didn't capitalize on them. You can't do that against a team like St. Louis and expect to win.
"The good news is we've got another shot, and we've got Roger and Roy ready, and they've been good for us all year long, and hopefully will be again tomorrow."
Which is precisely why going with Munro was the right move.
Jim Molony is a writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.