Oswalt overwhelms Cardinals 'with his stuff'

ST. LOUIS -- Roy Oswalt bent his head to the side and smiled briefly, in the way you do when you feel you can't catch a break, the way hitters sometimes look when they're facing Roy Oswalt.

Twice Oswalt had tried to bore a fastball in on the hands of Jim Edmonds, and twice, home plate umpire Greg Gibson watched the pitch flirt with the strike zone -- there might've even been a liaison, for that matter -- and said nothing. Ball 2, Ball 3. Full count.

When he was younger, Oswalt might've rushed into his next pitch, made a quick decision, pumped a fastball. Maybe Gibson's calls would've distracted him. But he is more deliberate now; you rack up a lot of innings, build some mental scar tissue, play alongside Roger Clemens, and you learn to assess your options.

On the face of it, Oswalt didn't seem to have many choices, in the fifth inning of Game 2 of the NL Championship Series. The Astros had a two-run lead, but St. Louis had two on and two out and The Greatest Hitter of His Generation, Albert Pujols, waiting in the on-deck circle. Brad Ausmus, the Houston catcher, recognized the simple logic that Oswalt couldn't afford to walk Jim Edmonds, and called for a fastball. Oswalt shook him off. Once. A second time. He had something else in mind.

What Oswalt did next served as the linchpin to the Astros' 4-1 victory, a win that gave the Astros a split in the two NLCS games played here, and with the series now moving to Houston for the next three games, it's possible -- but not likely -- that the Cardinals have played their final game in Busch Stadium. "Boy, he stepped up large for us tonight and just took control of the game, just absolutely dominated the game," said Houston manager Phil Garner.

Oswalt doesn't have the career numbers of a Clemens, the World Series highlight of Josh Beckett or the Cy Young trophy of Johan Santana. But Oswalt is the only pitcher to win 20 games in each of the last two seasons and he is the peer of Clemens and Beckett and Santana, as far as hitters are concerned, for pure stuff.

He throws his fastball in the mid-90s and because of the way he delivers the ball, driving off his back leg and launching his body toward the plate, it's a fastball that manages to surprise hitters even when they're looking for it. Teammate Jeff Bagwell has taken batting practice against Oswalt and watched a low fastball zip through the strike zone -- too low, Bagwell thinks, until he turns and sees the ball still knee-high, buried in the catcher's mitt; the ball has late life.

Oswalt will throw a cut fastball that runs in the range of 87-88 mph, a slider in the low 80s, and a curveball that once clocked in at 68 mph during Game 2. That means that Oswalt pitches within a velocity range of almost 30 miles per hour, which, in a parallel universe, is like mastering the piano, the steel guitar and the accordion.

Beckett "has three pitches," Bagwell said. "Roy has more ... What you're hoping for with Roy is that he doesn't have command of his fastball."

But he did, and he attacked, allowing only a couple of easy singles in the first four innings. Reggie Sanders had been hammering fastballs in this postseason until this game, and faced with Oswalt's fastball, he looked overwhelmed. Abraham Nunez whiffed in his first at-bat, tried to drop a bunt in his next try, unsuccessfully. Houston had mustered a couple of runs against Mark Mulder and it seemed like more.

But Yadier Molina doubled with one out in the fifth, and after Mulder struck out, David Eckstein worked a six-pitch walk, bringing Edmonds to the plate; for the first time, Oswalt looked vulnerable. Pujols loomed on deck, the most dangerous hitter remaining in October.

So the count reached 3-2, Oswalt pausing after a couple of Gibson's calls. Adam Everett, the Houston shortstop, thinks Oswalt has benefited from being around Clemens and Andy Pettitte, by learning how to move on to The Next Pitch, and not fret about what could have been. Ausmus said, "He kept his composure, and focused on the task at hand."

Oswalt leaned over, and shook off the catcher's sign for a fastball, and shook again, rejecting the suggestions -- until Ausmus called for a backdoor slider. Then Oswalt nodded; he had decided to get creative.

"We had been busting him in with fastballs a lot through the years, and in key situations," Oswalt explained later. What Oswalt wanted to do was break the pattern; he wanted throw a breaking ball outside, and try to get the ball to break over the outside corner.

The risk, of course, was that he would miss his target and Edmonds would walk and the bases would be loaded for Pujols, who carried a lifetime average of .341 against Oswalt into the game. The choice of backdoor slider, Ausmus mused later, "wasn't at the top of my list ... It takes a lot of guts to throw that pitch."

Oswalt did throw it, and the location was off -- one of the few pitches that Oswalt didn't command in this game. But Edmonds, realizing it wasn't a fastball, was fooled and took the pitch, as it spun over the inside corner. Strike 3, Gibson called. Edmonds stood at the plate, still frozen, as Oswalt strode off the field, to the Astros' dugout.

"Nice call on that last pitch," Ausmus said, and the Houston catcher complimented Oswalt for not letting the near-misses bother him.

Oswalt would last seven innings, and Houston closer Brad Lidge threw the eighth and the ninth, his fastball reaching 97 mph. "You got a guy like Oswalt, with his stuff," said Edmonds, "and then Lidge comes in behind him. You just kind of throw up your hands."

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," is available in paperback and can be ordered through HarperCollins.com.