Astros cast out ghosts of past Octobers

ST. LOUIS -- This time, Nolan Ryan didn't let any eighth-inning leads disappear.

This time, Pete Rose didn't bowl over Bruce Bochy.

This time, Kevin Bass didn't strike out with the tying run on second base.

This time, Pete Munro never made it to the mound.

And this time, Albert Pujols never got a second chance to obliterate the dream.

Yes, this time, the ghosts of Houston Astros Octobers' past were all placed on irrevocable waivers. Because this time, the Astros finally found the magic freeway to take them where no Astros teams had ever gone before.

This time, they're the team going to the World Series, as someone else tries to figure out where it all went wrong.

This time, said Lance Berkman, "we put it all to rest."

And by "all," he didn't just mean one Albert Pujols homer that might -- in the words of Craig Biggio -- "still be going."

Nope, Lance Berkman meant all 43 previous seasons in the life of the franchise -- 43 seasons that sure didn't end this way.

But this team did more than just erase the heartache for the Terry Puhls and J.R. Richards and Mike Scotts who never got to feel this feeling.

This team finally wrote Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell a ticket to their first World Series, after 15 years and more than 2,100 games together.

This team transported Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte back to the World Series, this time wearing the uniform of a franchise they came back home to rescue.

This team won 15 of its first 45 games -- and somehow found a way to spring off that trampoline all the way into the World Series. How'd that happen?

And this team took an Albert Pujols haymaker to the noggin Monday night, watched in amusement as the rest of the world gave it a 10-count, and then rumbled right back to rewrite the ending two days later, with a methodical 5-1 dissection of the St. Louis Cardinals.

Just try to pick the best story line off that buffet. This isn't a baseball team. It's a Rocky movie.

"There isn't just one good story here," said catcher Brad Ausmus. "It's all of them. And that's what makes this such a great story."

But there isn't much doubt about where to start. We start with the two men who have been the face of the Astros forever.

Biggio and Bagwell
It isn't true that Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell have been playing alongside each other since the days of the old Houston Colt .45s. But it feels like it.

So on Wednesday night, as the ninth inning rolled around, they did what they've been doing for the 15 seasons they've been teammates -- look for each other.

Bagwell has a shoulder that has disintegrated into linguini. So he's just a pinch-hitter now. Biggio was spending the bottom of the ninth in the dugout, because Eric Bruntlett had just taken his place at second base for defense.

"I'd rather have been on the field," Biggio confessed later. "But if I couldn't be on the field; I was going to find my boy."

So they watched together, from a corner of the dugout, as reliever Dan Wheeler ticked off the final outs of the postseason series they've been waiting to play all their lives. And when that 27th out landed in the glove of right fielder Jason Lane, the emotion of the moment flooded their eyes and rattled through their chests.

"I've been here 18 years now," said Biggio, whose 2,564 regular-season games are more than any man in history had ever played before visiting his first World Series. "And 18 years is a long time, man. Some guys go year-in, year-out. Some great players never got to go. But to be able to go now -- after 18 years -- it was worth the wait."

"When that last out was made," said Bagwell, the only current Astro who was around back when Biggio was still a catcher, "obviously I was thinking about Craig and I -- and all the things we've been through, good and bad, trying to get here. I'm especially happy for Bidge, because he's been here the longest. Now he'll get an opportunity to play for the ultimate goal."

But one of the best parts of this story is that now, because of the goofy existence of different rules for different leagues in this sport, Bagwell may get to play, too. The Astros will need a DH for those World Series games in Chicago. And Bagwell made a point of announcing that his shoulder feels good enough to allow him to DH every darned day if he has to.

"Be sure and tell that to [the manager], too," he laughed.

Asked if he'd had a chance to mention that to the manager, Bagwell laughed again.

"Oh yeah," he said. "Only every time I see him. Only every time he walks by."

Brad Lidge's Nightmare
It wasn't easy to forget, said Lidge. Mostly because the world just wouldn't let him forget.

We'll never know now what Lidge's life would have been like had the Astros never won another playoff game. We'll never know how many times he would have bolted out of bed at 4 a.m. because an Albert Pujols home run ball decided to launch itself into his brain.

But as breathtaking a moment as that home run was -- and always will be -- it's now just a painful little subplot in Lidge's career. It's never going away. But now that it has turned out to be only a two-day detour in his team's trip to the World Series, he figures to take about 1,000 fewer Tylenols in his lifetime, at least.

Asked Wednesday night if he thought it was safe to watch the replays now, the Astros' trusty closer replied: "I'll tell you what. I'm sick of it right now. I'm not going to watch it again for a while.

"I tried to turn on CNN," he chuckled, "and it was even on CNN. I'll tell you, man -- it was hard to get away from."

The other thing we'll never know is what might have happened if Lidge had had to jog back to the mound Wednesday, back to save one more game, back to face Pujols again with a whole season riding on it.

We'll never know because it never happened. Lidge had pitched in four games in a row in this series. So his manager, Phil Garner, decided to save him from this one unless the Astros really needed him. And it never came to that.

"But I don't even care that I didn't pitch in this game," Lidge said afterward, "because I know I'm going to pitch in the World Series."

Clemens and Pettitte
He would have seemed like the least likely man in the room to have a tear in his eye. But as Roger Clemens worked the Astros' clubhouse Wednesday evening, throwing bearhugs in every direction, that red in his eyes wasn't just from taking too many champagne attacks.

Clemens has been to five more World Series than the franchise he now plays for. In fact, he is about to pitch in a World Series in his third different decade. And he and his buddy, Andy Pettitte, have already been to four World Series together.

But this one is different. This one isn't just for him and his teammates. This one is for the town he calls home.

"It's really kind of unbelievable," Clemens said. "Andy and I just looked at each other after that last out. We've both been there and done that. But we're still proud about doing this one for all the people who have waited so long to get here. It's fun to help this team get over that hurdle -- finally -- that everyone has always talked about here."

When someone asked him to put into words what it felt like to bring a World Series to Houston, Clemens showed a stunning ability to shift pronouns.

"I didn't bring this to Houston. We brought it to Houston," he said. "It took a lot of work by a lot of guys in this clubhouse. They made it worth it. They made it worth my decision to come back for one more year."

Once, he and Pettitte played for a team that was supposed to win every year (i.e., some team in the Bronx). Now, they find themselves playing for a team that had never won. But in some ways, there was more pressure trying to help this team in Houston get to the World Series than there ever was working for that Steinbrenner guy.

"You know," Pettitte said, "when I signed here, and then when Roger signed here, everyone started talking World Series. And I was thinking, in my mind: 'Hey guys. Let's try to win one postseason series first, and then start talking about the World Series.'

"But obviously, once Roger signed, it was obvious we might have the kind of staff to get there. So to be able to come here -- with so much talk about how I was ruining my career, and how Roger was ruining his career pitching in that ballpark -- it's a great story. It really is.

"The first one we won in New York was special. It really was, because it was the first one in New York in so long, it seemed like such a burden had been lifted. But now to do this for an organization that was never able to get past one series, it's just so meaningful to come back here and do it."

Before there was Pettitte, and before there was Clemens, Astros baseball ranked somewhere between freshman football and the county rodeo on the Houston radar screen. But now, there's practically nothing else on that radar screen. And that never could have happened without Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte.

15 and 30
OK, let's try to make this compute: A mere 21 weeks ago, the only team in the National League with a worse record than the Houston Astros was the Colorado Rockies. The only teams in the entire sport with a worse record were the Rockies and Royals.

That means the Devil Rays had a better record back then. And the Pirates had a better record back then. And so did the Reds, the Tigers, and the Mariners.

You won't be finding any of those other teams playing in the World Series this October, though. Only the Astros get to do that. And any team that can climb out of the crypt to do that should have Bela Lugosi hitting cleanup -- not Morgan Ensberg.

Asked what he thought the odds were of a team that once was 15 games under .500 winding up in the World Series, Lance Berkman gave it some thought.

"Well, how many times has it happened -- ever?" Berkman replied. "Once in history, right? (Right.) And that was in 1914, right? (Right -- by the old 'Miracle' Braves.) So what does that tell you? That it's virtually impossible. But somehow, we did it. It's hard to believe, really."

Well, if it's hard for him to believe, think how hard it is for everyone else to believe.

If you dodged the flying clichés in that Astros clubhouse -- all those "we never gave ups" and "no one believed we could do it but us" grenades -- it was possible to come upon some real and valid explanations:

Berkman got healthy. Morgan Ensberg turned into Mike Schmidt. Pettitte's elbow stopped throbbing. Chad Qualls and Dan Wheeler morphed into the modern-day edition of Charlie Kerfeld and Larry Andersen. And there were the constants -- Lidge, Clemens, Oswalt, Biggio and the vastly underappreciated Ausmus to catch all those arms.

But you could compile 1.8 billion sensible baseball reasons and still not explain this. And many of these guys know that, too.

"I just think this time, it was meant to be," said Biggio. "You say it was meant to be, and people say, 'What do you mean by that?' Well, what I mean is this: You've got to get a couple of breaks. You've got to get a couple of calls that go your way. That finally happened.

"We've had great teams here in the past. But they never got those breaks. They never got those calls. But this team did. So I just think this had to be meant to be. It was obvious it was meant to be. It was just meant for us to go this time. I don't know why."

A couple of nights ago, of course, they weren't so sure it was so meant to be. A couple of nights ago, Albert Pujols pounded a baseball over their left-field railroad tracks and pounded a Mike Tyson right hook into their coconut.

And when that baseball came down, coach Jose Cruz -- a man who once played 12 seasons in Houston, seasons that allowed him to experience the pain of 1980 and 1986 -- thought to himself: This seems wayyyy too familiar.

"When we lost like that," Cruz said, "I said, 'Oh my God. I hope this doesn't happen the same way as '80 and '86.' But I knew we had two pitchers like Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens going. And I would put my money on those guys. I knew with those guys, we've got a chance."

But they never needed to turn to Clemens, because Oswalt packed his best fire-breathing fastball for the trip to St. Louis. And he barely let the Cardinals breathe, let alone threaten to win.

"Man, he was on tonight," Clemens said. "I've seen it many times. He had no-hit stuff early in the game."

By the time Oswalt gave up his first hit, in the fifth inning, he had a three-run lead. And the Cardinals -- who held a lead after just five of the final 45 innings of this series -- never got the tying run on base, or the go-ahead run to the plate, for the rest of the night. After the first inning, they never even brought Pujols to the plate with a single runner on base. Thanks to Oswalt.

"Roy Oswalt," said Berkman, "was awesome."

From the beginning, it has always been about those starting pitchers for this team -- about Oswalt and Clemens and Pettitte. So could there have been any more perfect way for these guys to finish off their Astros ghost-busting mission than to do it this way -- with one final starting-pitching masterpiece?

"Well, to be honest, yeah there could," Ausmus said. "We could have won Monday. That would have been more perfect. You know, with fuel costs being what they are, flying all the way to St. Louis to win it wasn't really a very good idea."

Yeah. But when you've waited as long to get to a World Series as those Houston Astros, what's another couple of days -- and another few hundred gallons? This time, finally, it was meant to be.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.