Super 6 sets up a splendid 7

ST. LOUIS -- On the biggest Thursday night of their careers, they'll come staggering back to the ballpark one more time.

They won't arrive with any curses to expunge, or any lingering Game 7 nightmares from yesteryear to relive.

They won't find an NY or a B on any of their caps. They won't find the stands full of authors and poets, ready to write books and screenplays about what happens on the emerald field below.

Heck, just about nobody outside of the Central time zone is even aware the Houston Astros and St. Louis Cardinals have even been playing these last eight days. But we can now reveal the shocking truth:

There has been another fabulous postseason series going on in the baseball universe this week. And Thursday, it concludes with an epic Game 7, with possibly the greatest right-handed pitcher of modern times -- Mr. Roger Clemens -- on the mound.

It's hard to complain about that script. Now all it needs is an ending.

But you get the feeling these men are headed for something Herculean, after what unfolded in front of a shrieking red-shirted mob scene Wednesday in Game 6.

It's mandatory -- isn't it? -- that all classic Game 7's be set up by a great Game 6. And this one sure qualified: Cardinals 6, Astros 4, in 12 mesmerizing innings.

No postseason series in history before this one had ever featured two consecutive games that ended with walkoff home runs. But now this one has, thanks to Jeff Kent (Game 5) and Wednesday's hero, Jim Edmonds.

Edmonds' two-run, extra-inning thunderbolt off Dan Miceli did more than just enable the Cardinals to keep showing up for work. It placed his name alongside the most magical names in postseason lore:

Carlton Fisk in 1986. Kirby Puckett in 1991. Steve Garvey in 1984. They all hit game-ending home runs in still-famous games that would have sent their teams home for a long, painful winter.

OK, so did one not-so-magical name -- Phillies rookie George Vukovich, in a strike-induced 1981 Division Series game.

But in all of baseball history, those are the only men ever to hit season-saving October walkoffs. And Edmonds is a worthy addition to that, or any, list.

"Thank God for that," laughed an exhausted Edmonds afterward. "We get to play tomorrow."

But no game can be summed up in one mere swing. So it's fitting that, before Edmonds sent everyone home, this was a game played the way all Game 6's ought to be played:

With managerial wheels spinning. With benches emptying. With starters warming up in the bullpen. With 52,000 voices shredded beyond hoarse.

  • Both teams' closers -- Brad Lidge for Houston, Jason Isringhausen for St. Louis -- pitched more innings in this game than the Astros' starter (Pete Munro, whose 2 1/3 rocky innings included more hits than outs).

  • In fact, the three innings apiece worked by Lidge and Isringhausen made this just the second postseason game in history in which two 20-save relievers pitched at least three each. It joins only the unforgettable sixth game of the 1986 Astros-Mets NLCS (when Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco combined to go eight innings for the same team -- the Mets).

  • Astros manager Phil Garner hit the accelerator so hard, he ran through all his position players before extra innings even arrived -- which led to only the fourth postseason pinch-hitting appearance by a pitcher (Brandon Backe) in the DH era. Backe, who whiffed in the 12th, joined Tom Glavine (walk in 1998), Lance Painter (strikeout in 1995) and Rick Aguilera (line-drive out in 1991) in the Pitchers Imitate Lenny Harris Club.

    Ah, but there was more. Lots, lots more.

    There was Julian Tavarez, last seen auditioning for Vince McMahon with a wild Game 4 dugout tantrum that ended with him punching out a dugout phone and breaking two bones in his non-pitching hand. (Score it a TKO for the phone.) Naturally, Tavarez would come stomping out of the emergency room to become the winning pitcher in this game.

    "This is great," Tavarez said afterward. "Now my dad will talk to me again. When I called home, I said, 'Dad, I've two broken fingers.' He said, 'Good. You deserve it.' "

    There was also Jeff Bagwell, the ultimate Astro. All he did was get the biggest hit of his career -- a game-tying single off Isringhausen with (poetry alert) two outs in the ninth -- after the Cardinals intentionally walked Carlos Beltran to get to him. And now, sadly, it becomes just a footnote in someone else's story, thanks to Jim Edmonds.

    "It's not about me," Bagwell said later, as dignified as ever. "It's such a team thing. ... We've been here before. So I don't expect us to do anything now other than what this team has always done -- respond."

    While we're on the subject of Beltran, his footprints were all over this game. But what else is new? He was on base four more times, slammed two singles off the right-field wall and scored two more runs that etched his name in the record book yet again.

    Beltran now has scored more runs (20) this month than anyone has ever scored in any postseason. His 11 runs in this series are more than anyone has ever scored in an LCS. And his streak of scoring a run in nine straight postseason games has been matched by only two men in history -- Babe Ruth (1927-32) and Frank (Home Run) Baker (1910-11). Phew.

    Which explains why Bagwell wasn't exactly reeling over the "insult" of having Beltran intentionally walked in front of him in the ninth (amazingly, for the first time in this entire postseason).

    "Insulted?" Bagwell chuckled. "Not at all. I would have thought Tony [La Russa] was crazy if he hadn't done that."

    But as brightly as Beltran's star continues to shine, so does that one-man galaxy across the diamond -- was the most dangerous right-handed hitter on our planet, Albert Pujols.

    Pujols seemed determined to lug the Cardinals into Game 7 singlehandedly for a while there -- mashing a two-run homer in the first, doubling and scoring in the third, singling (and getting thrown out at the plate) in the fourth and terrifying Miceli into a four-pitch walk that preceded Edmonds' homer in the 12th.

    Pujols now owns eight postseason homers. Only one other player ever made eight postseason trots before his 25th birthday: some nobody named Mickey Mantle.

    "He carried us again tonight," Edmonds said of Pujols, now hitting .500 in this series, with four homers, eight RBI and nine runs scored.

    Asked how he reacted to that review, Pujols quipped: "I think he's lying."

    But it's no lie. Trust us on that. And this series has become no warmup act for The Big Show in New York, either. Trust us on that, too.

    It has featured one taut, emotional game after another, complete with four game-winning homers, two walkoffs and one of the greatest October pitching duels ever. That's all.

    Maybe you'll even be able to buy a video someday that proves we're not making any of that up, that it all really happened while you were busy watching Yankees-Red Sox. But no one will have to prove it to the men involved. They're as thoroughly exhausted, yet totally exhilarated, as any October warriors of our lifetimes.

    "Every game is draining," said Bagwell. "It's every day, every pitch. ... I don't sleep much. I can't. I'm always thinking. I've never been so tired -- before the games and two hours after the games. But it's amazing. When I get out there on the field, I don't feel anything."

    "Man," said Isringhausen, when the mob at his locker finally cleared, "does it have to be this tough? I'm sleeping two hours a night. You get so wrapped up in it, you have to look for ways to put it in perspective. So I think about those kids over there in Iraq, getting shot at every day. Then I think: 'And I'm nervous?' How nervous are they? That's the only way I can keep my head straight."

    But for an hour there Wednesday, the only thing that kept Isringhausen from looking for a bridge he could leap off was the sight of that 4-4 tie on the scoreboard.

    The manager who made the three-out save famous (La Russa) decided to squeeze the first six-out save of the year out of his closer. Only Isringhausen hit the leadoff man (Morgan Ensberg) in the ninth, issued that intentional walk to Beltran and left a fastball over the plate, where Bagwell was able to pound it into left.

    It resulted in the first blown save in nine postseason opportunities for Isringhausen, a man with more October saves (eight) than any modern closer except Mariano Rivera. But that was no consolation for Isringhausen, who also served up Kent's tie-breaking home run Monday.

    So he stalked back to the dugout in a rage that stunned those who know him.

    "I don't get that angry very often," he said later. "But my frustration boiled over. I let my teammates down and I let my city down, and that's not a good feeling.

    "In the back of my mind, I had my speech already to everybody in here for messing up our whole season. I'm just glad I didn't have to give it."

    When Edmonds hit his home run, Isringhausen was watching on TV in the clubhouse -- and reacted like a death-row inmate who had just gotten a call from the governor.

    "I think I ran from one end of the clubhouse to the other," he said. "Then I ran down to the dugout and gave Jim a big hug. But then I remembered what Tony always says: You can't get too high over a game like this -- because we've got a big game tomorrow."

    Yeah, it doesn't get any bigger than Game 7. Can't possibly. Especially when the man assigned to pitch it for Houston is Clemens, a man who will not be confused with Pete Munro.

    Clemens has started three Game 7's in his career. He was brilliant in two of them (1986 ALCS vs. the Angels, 2001 World Series vs. the Diamondbacks). He was awful in the other (versus Pedro Martinez in last year's indelible ALCS finale).

    But this, in a way, will feel bigger to him than any of them -- because he galloped out of the sunset to come rescue his hometown team in a pivotal year in the life of the franchise. So there is no one else they would rather hand the baseball to than him.

    Asked how much Clemens relished this start, his buddy, Andy Pettitte, couldn't help but smile.

    "No matter how much of a competitor you are, nobody lives for a game like this," Pettitte said. "He'd much rather we wrapped this up tonight. I guarantee you that. Those are tough games to pitch, no matter how many times you've been there before. But I know this: We wouldn't want anyone else on the mound."

    The Cardinals will start the slightly less immortal Jeff Suppan. But remember this: Every time in history the Cardinals have come home trailing in a best-of-seven series to play Games 6 and 7 at home (1946 World Series, 1982 World Series, 1987 NLCS), they've won both games. And they haven't lost any of their five home games in this postseason.

    But the Astros already have won one winner-or-go-home game in this postseason (Game 5 in Atlanta). They have no doubt they can win another.

    So expect anything and expect everything. It's all possible.

    "I know they're going to throw Clemens, (Roy) Oswalt, Lidge, everyone at us," Isringhausen said. "And for us, this is it. We might have 20 guys in that bullpen tomorrow."

    "We've been playing games like this for two months," said Bagwell.

    "How much better does it get?" mused Edmonds. "Game 7 against Roger Clemens. I think it's going to be a blast."

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.