HOUSTON — Julian Tavarez must have forgotten about Carlos Beltran when he said the St. Louis Cardinals didn’t think the Houston Astros were so special.
Beltran struck again Sunday, hitting a home run in a record fifth straight postseason game and lifting the Astros against Cardinals 6-5 to even the NL championship series at 2.
“There’s no better feeling,” he said.
Before Game 1, the excitable Tavarez upset the Astros with this assessment:
“We don’t look at the Houston Astros like this is a great team. They are good, but we are better than them. We are the best because we’ve got 108 wins. We’ve proved it.”
Right now, no one’s better than Beltran.
He launched a tiebreaking shot off Tavarez in the seventh inning into the Houston bullpen, reaching way down to golf a 2-2 slider over the right-field wall.
“Barry Bonds is the best hitter in baseball. I don’t think he could have hit that pitch,” Tavarez said. “I can’t believe he hit it.”
Beltran ensured the teams will go back to Busch Stadium to settle who goes to the World Series. Meantime, there’s Game 5 tonight, with Brandon Backe starting for Houston against Woody Williams.
Beltran broke the record set by Jeffrey Leonard and tied by Juan Gonzalez in 1996 for consecutive postseason games with a home run. He also matched Bonds’ 2002 record for home runs in a single postseason.
“This is as good as I’ve ever seen anybody swing the bat, not just Carlos Beltran,” Astros manager Phil Garner said. “He’s some kind of locked in.”
Beltran is getting richer and richer with each swing. The switch-hitting, All-Star center fielder might be the prime free agent on the market once the season ends. At this moment, he is aiming for a ring.
“I’m just being relaxed, patient at the plate,” Beltran said.
Sluggers again dominated. Not quite the way they did at Fenway Park, where the Yankees obliterated Boston 19-8 Saturday night for a 3-0 lead in the ALCS.
Albert Pujols hit a home run for St. Louis, then came close to a go-ahead two-run home run in the ninth against Brad Lidge. But the ball was caught on the warning track, and the Astros’ closer struck out Scott Rolen for his second straight save.
Lance Berkman also hit a home run for Houston, giving the teams a combined 19 home runs through only four games.
After Beltran sent the crowd at Minute Maid Park into a frenzy, Tavarez further angered the Astros when he threw a fastball over the head of the next hitter, Jeff Bagwell. They exchanged words, plate umpire Mike Winters warned against further trouble and play resumed without any problems.
“I just lost my cool,” Tavarez said.
When the inning ended, Tavarez bent over as he walked to the dugout and appeared to berate himself. His antics were replayed on the stadium scoreboard, and that bothered Cardinals manager Tony La Russa.
“I think ever since I’ve been around, since 1996, the Astros are as classy an organization as anything I’ve met in the National League,” he said. “But even Sinatra clears his throat, and I think that was below their standards and that was disappointing.”
Dan Wheeler wound up with the win, pitching one inning in relief before letting Lidge go two innings for the second straight day.
With Roy Oswalt on the mound, the Astros really liked this pitching matchup. Yet, the righty who led the league with 20 wins was far from his best. He hung around for six innings and didn’t strike out a single hitter for the first time since July 2003.
Oswalt went 2-0 against St. Louis this season, then won the clinching Game 5 of the first round at Atlanta. But he seemed too eager and too excited at the start and never found his rhythm.
Fortunately for the Astros, Jason Marquis wasn’t much better. Bumped down in the rotation after getting hit hard by Los Angeles in Game 2 of the opening round, he was in constant trouble against Houston.
La Russa kept looking for edges, and a couple of lineup shifts paid off. John Mabry started in place of left fielder Reggie Sanders and hit an RBI single, and rookie catcher Yadier Molina replaced Mike Matheny and threw out Craig Biggio trying to steal, and added a hit.
For the fourth straight game, the visiting team hit a home run in the first inning. It was Pujols’ turn this time, and he lined a two-run shot into the boxes above the left-field wall.
Rolen followed with a double and later scored on Mabry’s single, marking the first time in 20 innings that St. Louis scored on something besides a home run.
Pujols was in the middle of the Cardinals’ next two runs. He walked and scored on Jim Edmonds’ sacrifice fly in the third, and hit an RBI single in the fourth for a 5-3 edge.
Bagwell hit an RBI double in the first and Berkman doubled home two more runs in the third.
Berkman’s third home run of the NLCS pulled the Astros to 5-4 in the sixth against reliever Kiko Calero.
Houston tied it later in the inning on an RBI single by No. 8 hitter Raul Chavez. He is Oswalt’s personal catcher and not known for his hitting, and he cheered himself all the way down the line.