Cards all hearts

ST. LOUIS -- Ten outs away from winter, and Roger Clemens on the mound.

Ten outs away from winter, knowing a 105-win magic-carpet ride was about to hit the runway way too soon.

Ten outs away from winter, and the St. Louis Cardinals could feel their season ticking away. Their fans stirring edgily. Their favorite left-handed bullpen flake hiding his head in the grounds-crew pit, unable to watch.

But striding to the plate at just this terrifying moment Thursday night was a man named Albert Pujols. And when Albert Pujols heads for home plate, games change. Seasons change. Lives change.

Four pitches later, Pujols sent a living legend's fastball flying into the left-field corner. And that glow you saw next in the Missouri sky was all those dreams of a Roger-versus-the-Red Sox World Series going up in a big red inferno.

The St. Louis Cardinals will head for that World Series in Fenway now, thanks to a 5-2 win over Clemens and the Astros on Thursday night in Game 7 of the best darned National League Championship Series nobody ever saw.

The Return of Roger would have been a magnetic plot line, all right. But when the World Series begins Saturday in Fenway, the six-time Cy Young award-winner the Red Sox once sent packing won't be able to make it.

This could have been his night, his story. But Clemens let a 2-1 lead disappear in one fateful, two-pitch, sixth-inning barrage. A Pujols double tied it on the first pitch. A Scott Rolen homer won it on the next.

Clemens' night on the mound was over four pitches later. And when the Astros' plane roared into the sky after midnight, it was heading back home to Texas -- not to the World Series they got close enough to taste.

"I still felt good," Clemens said afterward of that series-turning sixth inning. "We were up, 2-1. I was just trying to make good pitches and keep the crowd out of it -- the same thing I've been doing since the first time I stepped on the mound this year. ... With everything I've done in my career, you feel you can get it done."

But this time, in the fourth Game 7 of his fabled career (most of any pitcher who ever lived), Clemens couldn't get it done.

"This was our best-case scenario," said his catcher, Brad Ausmus. "Game 7 and Roger on the mound."

Not to mention Game 7, Roger on the mound and a quick 2-0 lead. But this was a 42-year-old Roger who still couldn't drive with his pushoff leg like the Clemens of old.

And this was a deep, resourceful, relentless lineup he was facing, in a ballpark where the home team has lost no games this October (6-0) and has lost just one Game 7 in the life of the franchise (to Detroit's Mickey Lolich -- 36 years and seven Game 7s ago).

The Cardinals would get back to within a run on a third-inning squeeze. But as the sixth inning rolled around, Clemens was still working on a three-hitter. And he made for one intimidating sight, peering over his glove with his icy eyes, trying to finish off two of the great comeback scripts in the history of sports -- his own and his team's.

"It wasn't a good feeling," said the Cardinals' Larry Walker. "Besides the fact you've got Roger out there and you know what he's capable of and you know what he's done, you know they've got (Roy) Oswalt in the bullpen and (Brad) Lidge behind him. So we knew we had to break through -- or we were in a ship-load of trouble."

And the ship was teetering, too. With the tying run on second and one out in the sixth, Walker dribbled a Clemens slider along the first-line. Clemens scooped it up and flipped to Jeff Bagwell. He was now just one out away from escaping a major mess.

There was only one serious hitch: The guy who stood between him and his escape hatch was Pujols, a man who, it often seems, literally can't be pitched to -- in this, or any situation.

But Pujols was only 2-for-14 (.143) lifetime off Clemens. He was 0-for-5 against Clemens in this series -- and 12-for-21 (.563) against everyone else. So the debate, for the Astros, was whether to walk him and put the go-ahead run on base, or test their luck one more time.

Manager Phil Garner trotted to the mound and motioned Ausmus to join him.

"We agreed when we discussed it, out on the mound, that we didn't want to give in to Pujols, at least right away," Ausmus said. "We were all in agreement -- Roger, myself and Gar. Rolen was next, and, to be honest, Rolen had taken some pretty good swings on Roger all night long. So it wasn't like we wanted to face him, either."

When the mound conference ended, Clemens reared back and challenged Pujols with three straight fastballs. Pujols took one for a strike, took a second for a ball and fouled the third straight back. The count was 1 and 2.

Clemens waved Ausmus back to the mound. Pujols eyed them curiously from the batter's box, doing his best to read lips and minds. He smoothed the dirt with his spikes. He stepped out and waited. He adjusted his batting gloves. Then he headed back to work.

"We were ahead of him, two strikes," Ausmus said. "And with two strikes, even Albert Pujols is not as good a hitter. So we were going with a two-seamer, down and in. But Roger got it just a little bit up."

It was a pitch, said Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, that "should have jammed 90 percent of the hitters" on earth. But that's the 90 percent who are normal humans. That wouldn't describe Pujols when he holds a bat in his hands.

If there's a better hitter right now in any circumstance, if there's a tougher out when a game and a series and a season are on the line, we haven't seen him. And that includes Bonds and Beltran, Ramirez and Ichiro, Guerrero and Jeter.

"Not many guys," said La Russa, "have that type of stroke."

Not many. Maybe not any.

Pujols lashed the baseball into the corner and loped into second, as the tying run scored and the stadium erupted. He pulled up and pointed one finger toward the sky. Clemens turned back toward home plate and punched his glove in a rare moment of visible frustration.

"I tell you what," Pujols said later. "This at-bat right here, the last at-bat against Clemens, is one of the best. I think I'm going to keep dreaming about it for the next couple of weeks. ... I didn't want to try to do too much, just see a good pitch to hit. I told you, he didn't make a bad pitch. ... Just thank the Lord my hands came through."

Clemens rubbed up a new baseball, rocked and delivered his worst pitch of the evening. Rolen was guessing first-pitch fastball -- and rocked it off the McBride & Sons Homes billboard, just above the left-field fence.

That fast, Pujols was strolling home, shaking a fist. Rolen was romping around the bases. And the St. Louis Cardinals could see the World Series just over the horizon.

"I was trying to be aggressive," said Rolen, after the home run that erased the last vestige of his 0-for-the-NLDS nightmare. "I mean, that's one of the best competitors in the world right there. If you're not up for the challenge and you're not ready to compete, he's going to beat you. ... (So) I just wanted to go to the plate and make sure that I was just as competitive as he was."

They'd been 10 outs away from winter, and the Cardinals knew what that meant.

"Look at Seattle a couple of years ago," said closer Jason Isringhausen. "They won 116 and got beat in the (ALCS). We didn't want that to be us."

So as Isringhausen stood in that bullpen, realizing this game's final outs would be entrusted to him, his nerves got so tingly, "I couldn't feel my legs," he confessed.

Meanwhile, his bullpen partner, left-hander Steve Kline, was so overcome by the weight of a Game 7 and all it entailed, he decided in the third inning "that I just couldn't watch it anymore."

"I just said, `Oh, God. I can't watch,' " Kline laughed. "All I do when I get like that is pace the whole time. Either I make my teammates nervous or I make these guys nuts. So I went and hid with the grounds crew over in the corner near the bullpen. I couldn't watch. I just listened. I could tell by the crowd what happened."

You think these men should be above all this. This is their job. This is their lives. This is the pressure that goes with the territory. But nothing prepares you for the tension of a Game 7 -- knowing what winning means, and knowing too well what losing means.

Jim Edmonds knew. It was still a 1-0 game in the second inning -- two on, one out -- when Ausmus launched a line drive toward the left-centerfield alley that was clearly going to blow this game apart. And even though he was shading Ausmus toward right-center, even though there was no way this ball could be caught, Edmonds felt the panic surge through him like an X-ray.

"When the ball came off the bat," he said, "I think I ran as hard as I've ever run for a ball. I thought, `If I don't get this ball, we've got no chance.' "

This was a two-run double if ever you have witnessed one. This was a 3-0 Astros lead, with a 328-game winner on the mound. This was 105 wins swirling down the drain.

So Edmonds ran. And ran. And ran. And then lurched through the sky, parallel to the outfield grass below him. He stretched out both hands, like a wide receiver running a post pattern. The ball landed in his glove. Somehow. He plopped to earth, chin-first. The baseball was still nestled in the leather. And the Astros' lead was still just one run.

"I've seen that guy make so many great plays before, I was trying to wish it past him," Ausmus said. "I knew that if there was anyone who could make a catch like that, it was Jim Edmonds. He made a spectacular play."

"I don't know how I did that," Edmonds said. "That's something you can't explain. You'll have to ask somebody else. I haven't even seen it. I don't know what it looked like. I just knew I had to get to that ball -- or it was 3-0."

Jim Edmonds' catch. Albert Pujols' final swing of the bat. If there were two freeze-frames that sum up why the St. Louis Cardinals are going to the World Series, it was the everlasting image of these two moments.

This team can bash you to death. Or it can Gold Glove you to death. So those Boston Red Sox had better beware. Their work isn't done just because the Bambino portion of their curse is history.

"We hit 14 balls tonight that we squared up (i.e., smoked) and they made great plays on," said Craig Biggio, who had started this game with the first Game 7 leadoff homer ever hit. "I couldn't believe how many balls we hit hard, so I asked (hitting coach Gary Gaetti), and we counted. Fourteen. And they caught everything. So what can you do? That's a great team over there."

Biggio has played 2,409 regular-season games for the Astros. His next visit to the World Series will be his first. His buddy, Jeff Bagwell, has played 2,111 games. No two teammates in history have played that many games together before making it to their first World Series. Now these two have to play at least 162 more -- if Biggio is even back.

"It's tough, man," Bagwell said. "Baseball is a crazy game. We were out of this thing in the middle of August. They we came back, made the playoffs on the last day of the season, played a Game 5 in Atlanta and a Game 7 here. So we played those games with that same sense of finality staring at us. And then, all of a sudden, it's over.

"It's just tough to play so long and play so hard and have it end like this. But unfortunately, that's baseball. That's the playoffs. ... But my disappointment isn't just for me. It's for everyone in this room. I know I don't have many shots left, but I'm OK with that. We made a hell of a bid. It's tough to swallow, but that's the way it is."

Across the room, Clemens was oddly upbeat, talking about how "happy" he was "for a lot of guys on this team" just to get the opportunity to get this far. He then danced around questions about his own future, even though he's expected to return. But his salute to the people of Houston could easily have sounded like goodbye.

"What they gave me this year," he said, "you can't measure it. From the day when the fans started knocking on my gate after Andy (Pettitte) signed and it looked like I might come back, it's been amazing. ... I'll remember that for a long time."

But what the team on the other side of the field will remember is beating Cy Young in the game he was brought back to Houston to pitch.

"This is what you dream about, going to the World Series, as a little boy," said Pujols, who hit .500 for this series (14-for-28) and got more hits than any player has ever gotten in any seven-game postseason series. "Getting the opportunity to play in Game 7 against the best pitcher in the league for the last 20 years, Roger Clemens, he's amazing. It doesn't get any better than that."

Maybe Roger-versus-the-Sox would have made a better curse-reversal plot line. But the best team in baseball this year is the one heading for Fenway. And as World Series plot lines go, that one isn't too shabby, either.

On a spine-tingling Thursday night in October, the St. Louis Cardinals felt the cool breeze of winter in their faces -- and didn't like the feeling. Somehow, we suspect the cool New England breeze that hits them Saturday night in Fenway will feel a lot more refreshing.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.