Astros bullpen blows it late _ again

Friday, October 15th 2004, 6:55 am
By: News On 6

ST. LOUIS (AP) _ Pete Munro held St. Louis' powerful lineup in check, and star closer Brad Lidge was warming up in the bullpen with the score tied heading into the eighth inning.

It was a scenario the Houston Astros had to like. But their bullpen came up with another woeful effort.

For the second straight night and the fourth time this postseason, Houston's shaky relievers were smacked around late. Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen homered off Dan Miceli in the eighth to lead the Cardinals over Houston 6-4 Thursday night, giving the Cardinals a commanding 2-0 lead in the NL championship series.

Tied at 4 in the bottom of the eighth, Astros manager Phil Garner sent Miceli to the mound with hopes that Houston could go another inning before turning to Lidge.

``If we got through the eighth inning still tied,'' Garner said, ``I was going to use him for a couple of innings.''

No such luck.

Just four pitches into Miceli's outing, Pujols and Rolen had connected back-to-back to give the Cardinals a 6-4 lead.

The sellout crowd of 52,347 at Busch Stadium exploded into cheers after spending much of the night eerily quiet as Munro pitched 4 2-3 solid innings.

Miceli showed little emotion, watching the flight of the homers and then staring ahead, stone-faced, as Pujols and Rolen took triumphant trots around the bases.

Lidge watched the collapse from afar, shaking his head when Rolen's homer plunked down in the Astros' bullpen. Houston's dugout, which only moments earlier was buzzing with activity, fell silent.

Garner made a curious decision to go with Miceli instead of Lidge, because since the Cardinals' third, fourth and fifth hitters _ Pujols, Rolen and Jim Edmonds _ were set to come to the plate in the eighth.

``I really believe if we're going to go anywhere, you have to have those other guys pitch and win, too,'' Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell said. ``We're going to need contributions from everybody.''

Afterward, Pujols seemed surprised that Lidge didn't come into the game earlier.

``Lidge has had success against us in the past three years, but, you know, they have a great bullpen,'' Pujols said. ``I think if we don't score right there in the eighth inning ... they want to save Lidge for the ninth inning.''

On Wednesday night, Almost the exact same thing happened.

St. Louis scored six runs in the sixth as soon as Houston starter Brandon Backe was gone, rallying for a 10-7 win in the series opener.

Lidge, Houston's best chance at pulling out a close win, watched from the bullpen.

Lidge hasn't pitched since Game 4 of the division series against Atlanta, when he blew a save by allowing a run and four hits in a season-high 2 2-3 innings.

Regardless, Lidge emerged as one of the best closers in baseball after the All-Star break. After Octavio Dotel was dealt to Oakland in a midseason trade, Lidge came on to set an NL record with 157 strikeouts in relief.

Lidge recorded a career-high 29 saves, including a major league-high 17 after Aug. 15.

In the Astros' sullen clubhouse, everyone was careful not to point fingers at the team's slumping _ and increasingly fragile _ relievers.

``We're not really where we want to be, certainly,'' Garner said. ``But we'll get it worked out. They'll come through for us.''