With the National League Championship Series tied at three wins apiece, on October 21, 2004, the St. Louis Cardinals and Houston Astros played a final game to determine who would play Boston in the World Series. Houston was looking to advance to the World Series for the first time, while the Cardinals were looking to advance to the World Series for the first time since 1987.
The 2004 Cardinals won 105 games, the second-most in the club’s history, after being projected to finish third in the division.1 The team could hit, pitch, and field. Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, and Scott Rolen would each finish in the top five of MVP voting. The team even boosted its lineup in August by trading for Larry Walker. The staff’s 3.75 ERA was the second lowest in the NL. And three Cardinals — Edmonds, Rolen, and Mike Matheny — won Gold Gloves.
The 2004 Astros struggled to a 44-44 midseason line and fired manager Jimy Williams at the All-Star break. Phil Garner took over, but the team struggled over the next month and was 56-60 on August 14. Yet Houston stormed back, going 36-10 over the remainder of the season to win the NL wild card, then beat the Braves in the NL Division Series. The team featured a fearsome duo of pitchers in Roger Clemens and Roy Oswalt, while midseason acquisition Carlos Beltrán came into game seven having one of the best postseasons ever. The team also featured the Killer B’s of Craig Biggio, Lance Berkman, and Jeff Bagwell.
Houston finished 13 games behind St. Louis in the regular season, but in the winner-take-all game, Houston had a clear advantage on the mound. Clemens started for Houston, while Jeff Suppan took the ball for St. Louis. Clemens would win the 2004 NL Cy Young Award, while Suppan had not made the Red Sox postseason roster the previous season. But Suppan did put together a solid 2004 campaign, posting a 4.16 ERA with 16 wins.
The Cardinals made a change to their starting lineup, putting Edgar Rentería in the leadoff spot for the first time since August 3, 2001. Tony Womack, the regular leadoff hitter, was dealing with an injury and moved down to seventh. Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa wanted Womack lower in the lineup in case he had to replace him. The Astros also made a change from their game six lineup, inserting Morgan Ensberg at third base in place of Mike Lamb.
After Cardinals legend Red Schoendienst threw out the first pitch, it was time for Suppan to take the mound. On the fourth pitch of the game, Biggio hit a changeup over the left-field fence for a home run. Houston led 1-0. After the hit, Biggio, who had dreamed of going to the World Series since he was a kid, wondered whether he was actually going to get there.2 Suppan got the next three men in order. Clemens took the mound and retired the Cardinals in order.
In the top of the second, Suppan got into trouble. He issued a leadoff walk to Jeff Kent and, one out later, José Vizcaíno singled to left, putting Astros on first and second. In stepped light-hitting catcher Brad Ausmus. Ausmus hit a line drive to deep left-center field that seemed ticketed for a double that would give Houston a 3-0 lead. When it was hit, Garner thought there was no way the ball would be caught.3 Playing shallow, Edmonds sprinted back and dived headfirst to make a sensational full-extension catch. This catch was the play of the game. LaRussa felt that if Edmonds did not make the catch, St. Louis would have lost the game.4 The Astros felt the same way, viewing the catch as a momentum-shifting play.5 With two men now out, Suppan struck Clemens out looking to end the inning, sending a roar through the crowd of 52,140. Clemens again retired the Cardinals in order.
In the top of the third, Suppan walked Beltrán with one out. Beltrán stole second and advanced to third on Bagwell’s fly to Edmonds. Trying to get Beltrán at third, Edmonds overthrew Rolen and the ball rolled into the dugout. Beltrán came home to give Houston a 2-0 lead.
Womack led off the third with a double to left and advanced to third on Matheny’s groundout to first. With Suppan batting, LaRussa called for a suicide squeeze. Suppan executed it perfectly and Womack came home with the Cardinals’ first run.
The Astros had another scoring chance in the top of the fourth. Kent was hit by a pitch and Ensberg singled to left, giving the Astros men on first and second with no outs. After a visit from pitching coach Dave Duncan, Suppan got Vizcaino to ground into a force out at second as Kent advanced to third. Ausmus again was up in a crucial situation. Suppan fell behind 3-and-0 but came back to strike out Ausmus. Next up was Clemens, who struck out looking as the Astros stranded two more men on base.
Clemens retired the side in order in the fourth. Suppan, facing the top of the Astros’ lineup for the third time, did the same in the fifth. Edmonds and Womack singled off Clemens in the bottom of the fifth, giving St. Louis men at first and second with one out. But Womack was picked off on a throw to first by Ausmus and Matheny flied out to end the scoring threat. With his spot due up first in the bottom half, LaRussa sent Suppan out for one final inning, in which he retired the Astros in order.
Suppan’s day was over. Roger Cedeño pinch-hit for him and hit a single through the infield, giving Cedeño his 11th hit in 25 career at-bats against Clemens. Rentería and Walker moved Cedeño over to third. With two outs and a runner on third, Albert Pujols stepped in to face Clemens. Pujols was the Cardinals’ best hitter in the series, hitting .500 with four home runs. With two strikes, Pujols delivered, lining a double into the left-field corner to tie the game, 2-2.
Next up was Scott Rolen. While waiting on deck, Rolen hoped Clemens would stay in the game because he felt he had just missed a couple pitches earlier.6 Clemens threw Rolen a first-pitch fastball that Rolen pounced on. The ball carried over the left-field wall to give St. Louis a 4-2 lead. Busch Stadium was electric. As Pujols crossed home with the go-ahead run, he was pumping his fist, while Rolen circled the bases with his head down. Clemens got Edmonds for the final out of the inning. As he walked off the mound, the Fox broadcast wondered whether Clemens had just thrown his final major-league pitch.7
Nine outs away from the World Series, LaRussa handed the ball to Kiko Calero for the seventh. Calero needed only one pitch to get the first out, then struck out Ausmus. Orlando Palmeiro, who played for St. Louis the previous season, pinch-hit for Clemens and was hit by a Calero offering, bringing up the tying run. With Beltrán looming on deck, it was imperative for Calero to get Biggio. And he did, on a groundout to Rentería. Roy Oswalt, the National League’s only 20-game winner in 2004, came in for Houston and retired the Cardinals in order.
Julián Tavárez had the eighth. He would have to go through the heart of the Houston lineup: Beltrán, Bagwell, and Berkman. He had no trouble with the trio, retiring them in order. In the bottom half, Marlon Anderson doubled to lead off the inning. Rentería sacrificed Anderson to third, and Walker drove him in to give St. Louis a 5-2 lead.
Jason Isringhausen, the Cardinals’ closer, was summoned to close out the series. He retired the first two batters on two pitches. Down to their last out, the Astros brought Vizcaíno to the plate. Isringhausen got ahead 0-and-2 before inducing a soft groundball to Womack, who fired to Pujols at first. The players poured onto the field, mobbing Pujols and Isringhausen. In the dugout, LaRussa hugged GM Walt Jocketty. The Cardinals had won the pennant for the first time since 1987. Albert Pujols was named NLCS MVP, saying: “It’s every little boy’s dream. I’m glad to have won the MVP, but that trophy is going to stay right in this room because everybody here is MVP.”8 The players could celebrate the victory late into the night, but they had to get back to work in the morning. St. Louis was going to Boston for the World Series.
In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author used the Fox game broadcast, the Baseball-Reference.com, Baseball-Almanac.com, and Retrosheet.org websites for box-score, player, team, and season pages, pitching and batting game logs, and other pertinent material.
1 The 1943 and 1945 Cardinals also won 105 games, and the 1942 Cardinals won 106 games.
2 Alyson Footer, “2004 NLCS: Recalling a Forgotten Classic,” www.mlb.com/news/2004-nlcs-between-cardinals-astros-among-best-c297093408 . Accessed January 8, 2020.
7 He hadn’t. He pitched for three more years.