HOUSTON -- The bins of champagne rested in the middle of the Astros' clubhouse, cresting with bottles, right between the big screen television and the couches. Plastic blanketed the lockers, to protect them from the celebration that was to come. Just one more out and half of Texas would come through those doors and celebrate the first World Series appearance for a 44-year-old franchise.
But Albert Pujols became the storm that wrecked their party, with one vicious swing, and the instant that the Cardinals closed out their stunning 5-4 victory in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, clubhouse attendants hurriedly tore down the plastic and hauled the bins away, out of sight of the dejected players as they returned to the clubhouse.
"It stings," said Brad Lidge, who had seen Pujols turn his 88 mph hanging slider into a comeback. "[But] we're going to win, and when that happens, it's not going to matter."
Lidge patiently answered questions from reporters, reviewing his strategy -- he threw back-to-back sliders to Pujols, the last one drifting over the plate -- and his own immediate realization, at the moment of contact, that the Cardinals' slugger had hit a homer. The Astros' clubhouse was quiet, but Lidge spoke firmly, loudly, his voice resonating almost uncomfortably, like a hearing impaired person chatting loudly at a wake. "This is the kind of thing that makes our team stronger," Lidge said.
They had come so close, Craig Biggio pumping his fist after Lance Berkman's three-run homer in the seventh, the Astros gathering in the dugout in the ninth inning, all grinning, knowing that Lidge would close out the Cardinals because that's what Lidge always does. Lidge, his fastball clocked as high as 98, struck out pinch-hitters John Rodriguez and John Mabry, and then David Eckstein had two strikes, and most of the Astros were at the front of the dugout, ready to sprint onto the field and scream and hug and celebrate a league championship that might have seemed impossible when they were 15-30.
Eckstein pulled a slider into left field, and then Jim Edmonds walked, and Pujols came up and swung. "Oh, my gosh," Andy Pettitte mouthed after the ball rocketed off Pujols' bat, taking all the noise of 43,000 fans with it, over the fence. The Astros' bench, Pettitte acknowledged, was dead silent after Pujols' home run.
"It's terrible," said Astros manager Phil Garner. "You're as high as a kite one minute ... We were feeling pretty good, but you have to play every out. We failed to play every out tonight. We just didn't do it."
The clubhouse attendants had cleared the clubhouse of all signs of party preparation by the time the players returned. Catcher Brad Ausmus went to lift weights with two teammates, and there wasn't much said; Ausmus mentioned to the trainer that his phone was ringing. Some players, Craig Biggio said, began to talk a little back in the clubhouse. "Guys were saying, 'Hey, keep your heads up.' You've got to move on. You've got to put this one behind you. We're still up 3 games to 2."
Pettitte admitted he would be lying if he didn't admit the loss wasn't "a blow. We're a little stunned right now. But we'll come back. Get a little sleep, go out there and go get them."
"Emotionally, it's probably a little bit tougher," said Ausmus. "But we'll have it behind us when we get to St. Louis for Game 6."
The landscape of history is littered with comebacks spurred by one swing. Nineteen years ago, for example, the California Angels were on the verge of their first World Series appearance. That was before Boston's Dave Henderson slammed a home run, and the Red Sox came back to win that series. In 1992, the Atlanta Braves were one out from elimination in the NLCS, before Francisco Cabrera beat the Pittsburgh Pirates with his single to left field; that was the last time a team was one out from elimination and came back to win.
And there is this: Last year, the Astros left Houston leading the series 3 games to 2, only to see the Cardinals win the last two games and the series in St. Louis. It's different in 2005, Lidge insisted. "We got Roy and Roger, for one," Lidge said, referring to the scheduled starters for Games 6 and 7, Oswalt and Clemens. "Two, we're a completely different team. I think this team is even more close-knit."
They will need to tug on every bit of emotional fabric between now and Wednesday night, when this series resumes, in St. Louis, and try to forget Pujols had ripped a championship and World Series berth out of their hands. Perhaps temporarily. Maybe forever.
"I need a drink," one player muttered.
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.