Baseball: Oswalt firepower launches Astros on to world stage

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The Independent Online

Wednesday's deciding game was a sad and anticlimactic finale for home fans at the 40-year-old Busch Stadium, now due for instant demolition to make way for a retro-style ballpark that will be up and running in 2006.

The Cardinals had returned home in high fettle after an exhilarating last-ditch victory in Houston on Monday, where a towering two-out homer by the renowned slugger Albert Pujols in the ninth inning snatched victory from the jaws of seemingly certain defeat. The raucous Houston crowd was silenced. Many thought the team would buckle after so crushing a let-down.

Instead it was the lifeless Cardinals who folded in St Louis. For the Astros, it was lift-off to Chicago where baseball's annual showpiece opens tomorrow, pitting them against the long dormant White Sox, themselves without a World Series triumph since 1917.

The climax to the season almost certainly will be a gritty, low-scoring affair, fought out between arguably the two finest pitching rotations in the game.

The White Sox routed the Los Angeles Angels in the American League Championship Series with the help of four consecutive complete games by their starters - a post-season feat unprecedented since the 1950s. On Wednesday night, however, it was the Astros' Roy Oswalt who put down his marker.

The laid-back right-hander utterly dominated the potent Cardinals hitters with his 97mph fastball, allowing just one run on three hits over seven innings. By the time he departed, Houston were ahead by 5-1, and the rest was a formality.

"Winning is absolutely fantastic," said the Astros manager Phil Garner. The Cardinals, however, had to acknowledge reality. "We ran into a buzz saw with Oswalt," their owner Bill DeWitt admitted, "Give him a lot of credit."

Oswalt's victory means that the stupendous Roger Clemens - to some baseball's finest-ever pitcher with 341 career wins - will take the mound tomorrow. The 43-year-old Clemens says this may be his last season, but his regular season earned run average of 1.87 was the best in the National League in 2005.

What better than to sign off with another World Series victor's ring to add to the two he won with the New York Yankees - and, just maybe, wrap up the triumph before his home fans when the series returns to Houston next week?