<
>

Astros searching for answers

ST. LOUIS -- Today, we invite you to put yourself in the shoes of men like Dan Miceli, Chad Harville or Chad Qualls. Sizes 12, 9 and 11½ respectively.

They are the trusty set-up relief crew for the Houston Astros. And here in the National League Championship Series, they have a job that's about as much fun as sweeping up lava at Mount St. Helens.

They come stomping in from the bullpen, night after night, just trying to get a couple of routine little outs. And there, waiting for them -- 60 feet, six inches away -- are Albert Pujols. Or Scott Rolen. Or Larry Walker. Or Jim Edmonds. Or some other hitter with numbers so big, they barely fit on the scoreboard.

Who would want a job like that? You'd be better off taking a gig as Steve Bartman's Chicago publicity man. Or babysitter for Melvin Mora's quintuplets. Or Rich Garces' personal trainer.

"If I had to come in and face our lineup," said Cardinals reliever Ray King, "I'd be looking for a pitch to invent."

And what kind of pitch would he invent?

"Hopefully," King laughed, "the stay-in-the-park pitch."

If Ray King had, in fact, invented the stay-in-the-park pitch -- and set up a little Buy My "How To Throw My Famous Stay In The Park Pitch" Instructional Video stand outside the Houston bullpen Thursday -- he probably could have made enough money to retire to Fiji.

Because in Game 2 of the National League Championship Series, the Houston Astros were in serious need of a stay-in-the-park pitch.

Oh, there are many reasons the Astros wound up on the wrong end of a 6-4 playoff game Thursday night. And many reasons they now head home to Houston trailing St. Louis, 2 games to 0, in this best-of-seven series.

But their lack of a stay-in-the-park pitch might have topped the list.

In the fifth inning, Houston manager Phil Garner waved for Harville to relieve starter Pete Munro. Two pitches later, Rolen golfed a breaking ball into the left-field seats and turned a 3-2 Astros lead into a 4-3 Cardinals lead.

"If he hadn't hit that pitch," Harville grumbled, "it would have bounced."

Then, in the eighth, in marched Miceli to try to maneuver through the middle of the Cardinals' order in a 4-4 game. It took him exactly six pitches to give up the first back-to-back homers in Cardinals postseason history -- to Pujols and Rolen. And we'll be back with the wrapup right after this message from King.

"They're a little scary sometimes," King said of his offense. "I'm glad I'm watching this, not facing it."

After leading the National League in runs scored this season, the Cardinals are now averaging 7.6 runs in all postseason games in which they haven't had to face the dreaded Jose Lima. Two games into the NLCS, they're batting .318 and slugging .636.

And the Houston bullpen has allowed 10 hits, nine earned runs and three long balls in 7 2/3 innings. That computes to a frightening 10.56 ERA for a bullpen which knew it was going to have to pitch a lot with Brandon Backe and Munro (owners of the fewest combined wins -- nine -- by any Game 1-2 starters in postseason history) starting the first two games.

So the one Astros reliever who didn't pitch Thursday became a prime topic of conversation. That was unhittable closer Brad Lidge.

He hasn't pitched since Sunday. So when the eighth inning arrived, he was out there warming up. But manager Phil Garner, whose magic touch apparently wasn't eligible for the postseason roster, pointed toward Miceli instead.

"Had we gone ahead (in the top of the eighth), I would have used him two innings," Garner said of Lidge. "Or if we got through the eighth inning still tied, I was going to use him for a couple of innings, too."

In fairness to Garner, very few managers bring in their closer in the eighth inning of tie games on the road. But the Astros had talked openly of trying to steal one of the first two games before rolling out Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt in Games 3 and 4. So if ever there was a time to get the closer in early, this game -- which was there for the stealing -- was it.

"I saw (Lidge) out there warming up," Rolen admitted later. "But I'm not here to say one way or the other what they should have done."

And why should he? It worked out just fine for him.

Thanks to him and his basher buddies, this has been one of those series for the Astros where no matter who they bring in, it seems to be the wrong guy.

Three times in these first two games, a Houston reliever entered and allowed a game-tying or go-ahead hit to the first hitter he faced. And one other time, in the sixth inning of Game 1, Harville came in, walked the first hitter and then gave up a three-run double to Edmonds.

"It's tough," said Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell of those bullpen developments, "but it happens -- especially against that lineup. There's just no breathing room for a pitcher. Every time you've got to make a big pitch, you look up and another All-Star is walking to home plate."

In Game 1, the Cardinals small-balled the Astros to death. In Game 2, they long-balled the Astros to death. Who knows what they'll have in store for Clemens in Game 3? Maybe eight bunt hits, two squeezes and 14 stolen bases.

"You face those guys back-to-back-to-back, and you can't choose who you want to pitch to," said another Cardinals reliever, Steve Kline. "So you have to be real careful. They don't just hit the long ball. They'll take bloopers. They'll hit balls to right field. And they don't give in with two outs. It's like a competition. One guy does it. So the next guy thinks he's supposed to do it."

In Game 1, the No. 2 hitter, Larry Walker, came within a home run of the cycle. So naturally, in Game 2, his only hit was (what else?) a two-run home run.

In Game 1, Pujols mashed a first-inning homer that inspired the Astros to pitch around him the rest of the night. So Rolen and Jim Edmonds, who hit behind him, combined for three hits and four RBIs. Which caused the Astros to challenge Pujols more in Game 2. And serve up three hits, a line-drive out and that game-winning homer.

"Having those guys behind me," said Pujols, now hitting .455 (10 for 22) in this postseason, "you don't have to be a hero on this team.

Yeah, but he is one, anyway. Asked if it was an advantage to hit behind Pujols in this lineup, Rolen replied: "Hitting behind Albert is a good thing. But then, hitting in front of Albert is a good thing. Hitting anywhere near Albert is a good thing. I want to give Barry Bonds his due. But beyond Barry, Albert is the next-best hitter in baseball."

What amazes Rolen most about Pujols is that he never gets hot -- because he never cools off. You can't ever say Pujols is locked in, Rolen said, because "you think that every game. For 162 games. Not counting spring training. Even seeing the balls he hits in spring training is a joke. Hitting just seems to be a natural act for him."

Rolen, on the other hand, is a relentless tinkerer who changes stances 150 times a season and just came out of the kind of 0-for-14, 3-for-31 funk Pujols never seems to immerse himself in.

But Rolen says he never gets jealous of Pujols' easy swing and consistent approach, because he knows that, for anyone else (i.e., him), "that's just not possible."

"I don't think about things that are impossible," Rolen said. "I'd just like be locked in for 62. Or 100. But Albert, he's locked in for all 162. So that's nothing I can really think about."

But now that Rolen's stroke is back, that Cardinals lineup is sure something for the Astros to think about. Too bad most of that thinking might just come in the form of nightmares.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.