Houston Comes Up Short in Playoffs Again

Thursday, October 21st 2004, 10:21 pm
By: News On 6

ST. LOUIS (AP) _ Make it 43 years and counting for baseball in Houston. Houston's had major league baseball longer than any city without hosting a World Series, and the Astros fell short again this season. Even with homegrown Roger Clemens on the mound in a deciding Game 7.

Scott Rolen blasted a two-run homer off a tiring Clemens in the sixth, lifting the St. Louis Cardinals to a 5-2 win over the Astros in the NL championship series Thursday night.

``Winning still to this point never gets old and losing still hurts just the same,'' Clemens said. ``Especially when you throw your heart out there and expose your heart to everyone out there involved.''

Now that the Boston Red Sox got by the archrival New York Yankees, Houston takes the lead in major league postseason heartache.

The Astros dropped to 1-8 in games in which they could clinch a playoff series win, with the only victory coming in Game 5 of the division series against Atlanta this season.

By beating the Braves to get out of the first round, the Astros took a baby step forward.

But Houston's frustrating wait for an NL pennant continues for at least another year. They'll head into a long winter _ a balmy one in Houston, at least _ knowing they had plenty of chances to eliminate a team that won a major league-best 105 games.

``I just told my players that, without question, this is one of the greatest runs in the history of the game,'' said Phil Garner, who took over as manager when Jimy Williams was fired at the All-Star break.

``It was a fantastic run,'' Garner said. ``I described our season from midway on as very improbable. I think that's appropriate.''

This was the closest Houston had been to the World Series since Nolan Ryan left the mound with six outs to go against Philadelphia in the 1980 NLCS. But the Phillies rallied late and won in 10 innings, and Houston has never been the same since.

The Astros also lost close ones in the NL West division series to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1981 and the NLCS to the New York Mets in 1986.

But this really felt like the year the Astros would get to the World Series. They had an improbable 36-10 finish that included 18 straight home wins, the Chicago Cubs collapsed, the Los Angeles Dodgers helped eliminated the San Francisco Giants, and Houston clinched the wild card in its 162nd game.

The Astros exacted revenge on the Braves for playoff defeats in 1997, '99 and '01, beating them at Turner Field to clinch their first postseason series victory in club history.

Indeed, history looked as if it would finally be on Houston's side Thursday night in St. Louis.

The Astros took an early 2-0 lead, Clemens was cruising and the sellout crowd of 52,140 at Busch Stadium was eerily quiet as the innings went on.

But the momentum shifted in the sixth, when the Rocket was clearly gassed and the heart of St. Louis' powerful lineup was due up to bat again.

Albert Pujols doubled with two outs left, and Rolen followed with a 343-foot blast into the left-field seats to send the crowd into a frenzy.

Houston never threatened again.

``You think going in, the way we got here, that things might fall in place,'' Astros second baseman Jeff Kent said. ``You think it would be your turn. It didn't work out that way and it's frustrating.''

The Astros' ``Killer Bs'' lineup of Craig Biggio, Carlos Beltran, Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman had no sting when it mattered most.

Those four, including Kent, combined to go 1-of-17, with Biggio's leadoff homer in the first the only hit among them.

``We had some quality at-bats and nothing to show for it,'' Biggio said. ``It simply wasn't meant to be for us, for whatever reason.''

And when Jose Vizcaino grounded out to second for the final out of the game, the red-clad Cardinals fans burst into cheers.

St. Louis players ran out of the dugout to meet near the mound for hugs and high-fives while gold and white confetti rained down on the fans. Many of the Astros watched the celebration from the top step of their dugout, staring stone-faced at the celebration.

The Astros remain one of only six teams to never advance to the World Series. That undistinguished list of franchises includes the Texas Rangers, Seattle Mariners, Colorado Rockies, Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the team formerly known as the Montreal Expos.

``It's a bitter disappointment,'' Astros owner Drayton McLane said. ``We were awful close. But our commitment now is as ferocious as its ever been. We want to be champions.''

The wait, as usual, goes on another year in Houston.