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One game, two sorts of must-win situations

ST. LOUIS -- No one will pitch Game 6 of the National League Championship Series while wearing a special knee-high boot, an industrial-strength ankle brace or a hard-to-scrub Thanksgiving turkey gravy stain.

And no one will pitch Game 6 of That Other Series with 328 wins on his baseball card, either.

In other words, you won't find anybody named Schilling or Clemens toeing the old rubber Wednesday in St. Louis. So if you choose to tune in this one on your cable dial, you'll have to do it based on the sheer magnetism of vintage October must-winnery.

Game 6's are always must-see TV because they're the epitome of riveting must-win baseball. But as Astros outfield-philosopher Lance Berkman has educated us this postseason, not all must-win games are created equal -- a truth-hood that will be embodied by the divergent states of the Cardinals and Astros in this game.

There are, according to Berkman, four levels of must-win games this time of year:

  • Category 1 -- Must-Win.

  • Category 2 -- Absolute Must-Win.

  • Category 3 -- Desperation Must-Win.

  • And Category 4 -- all those games that everybody thinks are must-win but really aren't.

    So given that, here are the official Lance Berkman ratings for Game 6:

    For the Cardinals (trailing, 3 games to 2, but at least coming home for Games 6 and 7): Category 3 -- Desperation Must-Win.

    But for the Astros (leading, 3 games to 2, after winning three in a row in Houston): Category 4 -- Big and huge and potentially historic, but not as must-win as we'll all make it out to be.

    "Now don't get me wrong," Berkman philosophized. "When I say a game isn't must-win this time of year, it still is. You're playing with a sense of desperation even if you sweep four games. But in terms of having an impact on the finality of our season, Game 6 isn't a must-win game. If we lose Game 6, we still get to play Game 7."

    Right. And if they do play Game 7, that would undoubtedly be Categories 1, 2 and 3 all rolled together, plus a few more Lance Berkman hasn't even thought of yet. But for now, Game 6, really must not be a true must-win for the Astros. Or else Pistol Pete Munro wouldn't be pitching in it.

    Astros manager Phil Garner did his best Tuesday to make it seem as if his choice of Munro (on full rest) over Roger Clemens (on short rest) as his Game 6 starter had nothing to do with where this series stands. This was an actual quote, uttered by the manager on an actual podium Tuesday, with an actual earnest expression on his face:

    "If I thought Clemens was the one to win the game tomorrow, I would send him out there no matter what. [But] I think this is the best way to go. I think it's absolutely imperative that we do everything we can to win tomorrow's game. I think the best way to do that is to go with Pete."

    These words were undoubtedly intended as a go-get-'em-pardner public show of faith in Munro. Which was touching and inspirational and all that. Except for the fact that even Munro himself didn't believe them.

    In fact, he admitted, he'd all but been told that if the Astros were trailing, 3 games to 2, Clemens would have started. And even Garner hinted he had to make the call to start Munro -- whose last win came a mere 44 days earlier -- over the objections of some members of the Astros' hierarchy.

    Meanwhile, the Cardinals' players and coaching staff were so sure that all this Munro talk was a ruse, they said numerous times, earlier in the afternoon, that they were preparing to face Clemens in this game.

    "I'm sure they'd rather face me than Roger," Munro said. "I mean, I'd rather face me than Roger."

    At another point, a still-stunned Munro observed: "That they went with me is amazing to me."

    But the fact is, it wasn't amazing at all. It was the only rational way to go.

    For one thing, Clemens is only now starting to fully get over the stomach virus that zapped him out of his final regular-season start. He also tweaked a muscle in his right (push-off) leg two starts back and clearly wasn't over that yet his last time out.

    Oh, and did we mention he's also 42 years old? Which makes him the second-oldest non-knuckleballer (behind old-time spitball legend Jack Quinn) ever to start a postseason game.

    Then there's the whole three-days-rest nightmare, which the Astros have already experimented with three times in this postseason. They lost two of those three experiments -- and won the third more because they scored 12 runs against the Braves (in Game 5 of the NLDS) than because Roy Oswalt outpitched anybody.

    But it isn't just the Astros who have had problems with this. Since 1999, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, teams have started 42 pitchers on short rest in a postseason game. The record of those teams is a terrifying 12-30.

    And Clemens, big ol' horse that he is, has been no better. Over the last 14 seasons, Clemens has made seven starts on three days' rest (counting the postseason). Including his no-decision in Game 4 of the NLDS, he's 1-4, with two no-decisions, in those starts, with a 7.00 ERA. He has averaged only five innings per start.

    So if you're only going to get five innings out of him in a game that isn't must-win (see above), what's the point? Might as well start Munro -- and have Clemens rested for a Game 7 start that could add new luster to his legacy, with Oswalt available to pitch in relief in either Game 6 or 7. Or whenever true Must-Win Time officially arrives.

    Besides the Munro-over-Clemens intrigue, though, there is another fascinating plot line awork in Game 6:

    For the first time in many months, these two teams essentially find themselves turning into each other's characters in an unfamiliar role-reversal reality show.

    For months, it has been the Astros going out there, facing games they absolutely, positively, unequivocally had to win if they didn't want to tumble over a cliff. And it has been the Cardinals who have been cruising through the season in total control.

    Now, all of a sudden, it's the Cardinals who are peering over that cliff, knowing their potentially special season is one loss from tumbling into the canyon. And it will be interesting to see how they respond.

    Manager Tony La Russa attempted to protest, initially, that this team's 105-win season hasn't been as easy as it looked.

    "It wasn't like this was one of those free rides," the manager said, "where everything fell into place."

    But whether it was or wasn't, they're definitely in pay-to-play mode now, in a series in which all Cardinals not named Albert Pujols or Larry Walker are hitting .174.

    "I like to say that some clubs have great regular-season teams," La Russa said. "And some clubs have great postseason teams. But it's been proven over and over that the ones that are the really great teams are the ones that are both."

    Well, now it has come time for these Cardinals to prove that that's what they are.

    There is still a way this Cardinals team carries itself that suggests it doesn't expect its season to end now -- or before Halloween. And Game 6 starter, Matt Morris, said, flatly: "The feeling around this team all year is that we should be a team that goes to the World Series and plays for a ring."

    They have every reason to feel that way, after winning 105 games in the regular season. So they could place themselves among the elite teams of the division-play era if they go on to win the World Series. But now their challenge is to finish the deal -- against the hottest team still playing.

    All great teams are tested at some point, of course. But that doesn't mean they have to like it that way.

    "I don't think we enjoy being down 3-2 right now," third baseman Scott Rolen confessed. "If we'd have sneaked one out [Monday], we'd enjoy being up, 3-2 and coming back to our home park. But we don't enjoy this. Right now, it's a must-win situation."

    Wait. No it's not. If you've been paying attention through this whole column, you know it's more than that: It's a DESPERATION must-win situation. And that, in an upset, is a situation these Astros can relate to better than these Cardinals.

    "We've been through two months of must-win situations," said Jeff Bagwell. "And in the long run, I think that's helped us. A lot of guys were put in a lot of pressure situations. Because of that, they've gotten conditioned to playing that way. And I think that's good.

    "Of course," Bagwell laughed, "I'd much rather cruise. But that's not the story of the 2004 Astros."

    Hmmm. Could that possibly change, in a Munro-versus-Morris must-win-versus-REALLY-REALLY-must-win duel in Game 6?

    You'll just have to point your clicker at the nearest flat screen, where more epic October drama is about to unfold, and find out.

    Triviality
    Question: Roger Clemens is one of three active pitchers to win postseason games for three different teams. Can you name the others?

    Answer
    Answer: Curt Schilling and David Wells. (The only others to do it in history: David Cone, Danny Jackson and Tommy John.)

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.