HOUSTON -- The champagne was on ice. The sellout crowd of 43,470 was on its feet. Brad Lidge was one strike away from putting the Houston Astros in the World Series for the first time in the 44-year history of the franchise.

Minute Maid Park was ready to erupt.

And then the cheers quickly turned to shocked silence.

With two outs in the ninth inning, Lidge couldn't get the final strike on David Eckstein after going ahead, 1-2, on the St. Louis shortstop. Eckstein singled and after a walk to Jim Edmonds, the Astros closer surrendered a towering three-run homer to Albert Pujols to lift the Cardinals to a 5-4 victory that sends the National League Championship Series back to St. Louis with the Astros holding a 3-2 series lead.

The question of the NLCS now is whether the Astros, one of the more resilient teams in baseball, have enough spring to bounce back from such a crushing defeat.

They don't come much tougher than this one. This heartbreaking setback means the Astros must go back to Busch Stadium and win one of two possible games there if they are going to fly their first NL pennant.

"We would have loved to have gotten it done tonight for sure, but we didn't," Astros starter Andy Pettitte said. "It's a tough one, and we've got to bounce back. You go home, you get to bed, you wake up tomorrow and put it behind you. This is not the end -- it's a tough loss, but it's not over."

Though obviously very disappointed with the turn of events, the Astros were well composed following the loss and in much better spirits than you might expect.

Coming back from a 15-30 start to make the playoffs is one indicator of this team's character. The Astros are no strangers to disappointing defeats and chose to look at this one as just another unfortunate bump in what has been a relatively rocky road for them. They've gotten up after getting knocked down too many times to stay down now.

Forget about possible shell shock -- the Astros even marveled at what a great game this one was. Despite their disappointment, the Astros were not so lost in their predicament to not appreciate what they had just witnessed.


From the brink
Five teams have won postseason games after being one out away from elimination.
2005 NLCS, Game 5: Cardinals 5 Astros 4
*1992 NLCS Game 7, Braves 3, Pirates 2
*1986 World Series, Game 6: Mets 6, Red Sox 5
*1986 ALCS, Game 5: Red Sox 7, Angels 6
1911 World Series, Game 5: Giants 4, Athletics 3
*=Team would go on to win series.
"This is why this game is so great, this is why we all play it and this is why we all love it," Astros outfielder Jason Lane said. "This was two great teams slugging back and forth."

Added catcher Brad Ausmus: "It just wasn't meant to be. It was actually a great baseball game to sit and watch. Unfortunately for us, we wound up losing."

It was truly one for the ages, with tension on every pitch and an emotional grind for all. There was the euphoria for the Astros over Lance Berkman's opposite-field three-run homer in the seventh inning off Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter that gave Houston the lead followed minutes later by the disappointment over the Cardinals, one pitch away from elimination, rallying with one of the more incredible comebacks in playoff history against one of the best closers in the game.

"The fans certainly got their money's worth," Astros second baseman Craig Biggio said.

We are reminded of former Cincinnati Red Pete Rose, expressing similar thoughts after his team had lost to Boston in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series on Carlton Fisk's home run.

After that disappointing defeat, the Reds came back and won Game 7 and the series.

The Astros still control their destiny. Though undoubtedly the long-suffering Houston fans may have let that fact slip their minds in the wake of Pujols' rocket over the railroad tracks in left, the Astros would like to remind everyone that they still lead the series and need just one more victory to wrap it up.

"We don't think we're down, we've had tough losses all year and we've bounced back," Lane said. "This team has a lot of character."

Even Lidge, who finally blew a save against the Cardinals in three years of opportunities, was candid and surprisingly upbeat.

"It was a mistake on a slider. I left it up in the zone and he squared it," Lidge said. "I wish I could take it back, but I can't. I'm upset about it now, but tomorrow it'll be gone. This will sting a little bit, but when I wake up tomorrow it will be gone. If I couldn't do that, I wouldn't be a closer."

Lidge also echoed his teammates' sentiments in that he doesn't give any credence to the idea that this was a momentum-turner in the series.

"This is a resilient team," Lidge said. "We've been through a lot this year, but we've always pulled together and bounced back. We'll bounce back from this."

The Astros have done things the hard way all year. We shouldn't be surprised when they do the same now.

"I'm not exactly shocked, because that's how we've been playing this year," third baseman Morgan Ensberg said. "This isn't the end of the season. If it would have been the end of the season, it would hurt more -- but again, we are up in this series."

Which must now, because of one pitch, head back to St. Louis.