ST. LOUIS — The best team in baseball now gets a chance to prove it in the World Series.
MVP Albert Pujols hit a tying double, Scott Rolen followed with a home run and the St. Louis Cardinals suddenly erupted against Roger Clemens, startling the Houston Astros 5-2 Thursday night to take Game 7 of the NL championship series.
“It’s every little boy’s dream. I’m glad to have won the MVP, but that trophy is going to stay right in this room because everybody here is MVP,” Pujols said.
In a matchup where the home team won each time, the Cardinals broke through with two outs in the sixth inning. It came in a span of only two pitches, and Busch Stadium became a roiling sea of red.
Jeff Suppan overcame a leadoff home run by Craig Biggio to win an apparent mismatch against Clemens, helped by a stunning catch from center fielder Jim Edmonds. The bullpen combined for three scoreless innings, shutting down Carlos Beltran and Co., with Jason Isringhausen working the ninth for his third save.
After posting 105 wins and running away with the NL Central, the Cardinals advanced to their first World Series under manager Tony La Russa, and first overall since 1987.
Next up, the Boston Red Sox in Game 1 on Saturday night at Fenway Park. By all accounts it should be a classic — they also met in the 1946 and 1967 Series, and St. Louis won both, each time going the full seven games.
“It’s going to be a blast,” Edmonds said. “Boston’s a great town. They played so well to beat the Yankees.”
Pujols led the way, hitting .500 with four home runs and nine RBIs. Overall, the teams combined for 25 home runs, the most in any postseason series.
Larry Walker singled home an insurance run in the eighth, and the club sporting the famed birds-on-the-bat logo captured its 16th pennant.
“We got every element,” Walker said.
For the Astros, it was total disappointment. They have never reached the World Series since their expansion season of 1962, the same year Clemens was born.
But the Rocket could not hold an early 2-0 lead in his record fourth start in a Game 7.
Suppan was 0-4 in head-to-head games against Clemens this year, including a loss in Game 3. Yet he pitched out of trouble for six innings, then turned it over to relievers Kiko Calero, Julian Tavarez and Isringhausen.
When it was over, the teams did not shake hands on the field, as St. Louis and Los Angeles did at Dodger Stadium after the first round. La Russa, who had previously been 0-3 in the NLCS, waved across the diamond at Houston manager Phil Garner.
Garner took over the Astros at the All-Star break and when they dropped to 56-60 in mid-August, they were tied for seventh place in the wild-card race.
Houston rallied, then beat Atlanta for its first postseason series victory. But with Clemens and 20-game winner Roy Oswalt out of sequence, the Astros could not stop St. Louis.
The Cardinals improved to 9-4 in Game 7s, the most such wins in baseball. They did it against Clemens, who ended a brief retirement and came back to pitch for his hometown team.
Clemens seemed born for this occasion — he was born on Aug. 4, 1962, the same day the Houston Colt .45s lost 2-0 at St. Louis. But at 42, the ace came up empty.
While Rolen and Pujols did the major damage in the sixth, Roger Cedeno surely deserved some credit for rattling the Rocket.
Cedeno opened the sixth with a pinch-hit single, his 11th hit in 25 lifetime at-bats against Clemens, and immediately began dancing off first base. Clemens made three pickoff throws and stepped off the rubber three times trying to hold Cedeno close.
Cedeno moved up on a bunt, and again his leads attracted Clemens’ attention before the speedster took third on Walker’s groundout. That brought up Pujols, and brought Astros manager Phil Garner to the mound.
With the count at 1-2, catcher Brad Ausmus again went to visit Clemens. Pujols lined the next pitch into the left-field corner, cocking his arm as he eased into second base with a tying double.
The crowd was going crazy by then, and Rolen seized the opportunity. Clemens tried to throw a first-pitch fastball by Rolen, and instead the All-Star slugger rocketed it just inside the left-field foul pole.
While Rolen ran hard around the bases and several Cardinals spilled out of the dugout to meet him, Clemens could only stare ahead.
An inning earlier, Ausmus preserved a 2-1 lead by picking off Tony Womack at first base with two runners on.
Biggio picked on Suppan’s fourth pitch, hitting a no-doubt drive to left. At 38, it was the kind of big hit he hoped for much earlier in his career.
Edmonds prevented a big inning with the type of catch that’s made him a six-time Gold Glove winner. Shaded toward right-center, he raced back into the left-center alley and made a headlong dive to rob Ausmus with two runners on. Clods of grass kicked up as Edmonds’ knees hit the ground, and he slid several feet on his stomach.
“It’s probably the hardest I ever ran for a ball. It just faded into me,” Edmonds said.
When Edmonds came up in the bottom of the second with his grass-and-dirt stained uniform, he had a few fun words with Ausmus at the plate.
After taking away a couple of runs, Edmonds was charged with an error that gave back a run in the third. Beltran walked with one out, stole second and tagged up on Jeff Bagwell’s fly ball. Edmonds’ strong throw and Beltran arrived at third base simultaneously, and the ball skipped into the dugout.
Edmonds was charged with the error that let Beltran trot home. It was a tough error, and ended St. Louis’ record streak of 12 straight postseason games without a mistake, dating to 2002.
Suppan put down a perfect suicide-squeeze bunt that pulled the Cardinals to 2-1 in the third.