They'll Take It to Limit

Times Staff Writer

His left hand numb, his head spinning, Julian Tavarez couldn't wait to call his father.

Jim Edmonds had just propelled the St. Louis Cardinals to a 6-4 victory over the Houston Astros in Game 6 of the National League championship series with a two-run walk-off home run in the 12th inning Wednesday night in Busch Stadium.

And yet all Tavarez could think about in a triumphant clubhouse was his father, Frank.

The last time they had talked, following Tavarez's seventh-inning meltdown in Game 4, in which the St. Louis reliever had given up the go-ahead run, Tavarez had informed his father that he had broken two fingers in his left hand during a dugout tantrum.

"Good," the father told his son. "You deserve it."

Tavarez said he figured the conversation would be a bit more upbeat after he had redeemed himself Wednesday by pitching two perfect innings to record a victory that helped the Cardinals force a winner-take-all Game 7 tonight in Busch Stadium.

The matchup? Houston's Roger Clemens against Jeff Suppan, a former teammate of Clemens' with the Boston Red Sox.

"This," Cardinal reliever Ray King said, "is what October is all about."

The right-handed Tavarez said he couldn't feel his left hand when he entered the game in the 11th inning after taking painkillers and several injections to numb his fingers. But he could certainly feel the importance of the situation after Houston's Jeff Bagwell had tied the score in the ninth with a two-out single against closer Jason Isringhausen.

After Isringhausen set down the Astros in order in the 10th, Tavarez worked a perfect 11th. In the 12th, Tavarez retired leadoff batter Carlos Beltran, he of the postseason-record-tying eight homers, on a grounder to first baseman Albert Pujols, who made an unconventional out by sliding into the bag ahead of Beltran.

That brought up Bagwell, who had three hits and two runs batted in -- and who was at the plate in Game 4 when Tavarez unfurled a high and inside pitch that resulted in a $10,000 fine. Tavarez retired Bagwell on a popup to catcher Mike Matheny and then pumped his right arm in delight after striking out pinch-hitter Brandon Backe on a full count.

"When I struck him out," Tavarez said, "I got really excited. I know Pujols, [Scott] Rolen and Edmonds were coming up."

Adding to Tavarez's excitement was the fact that the heart of the Cardinal order would face Dan Miceli after closer Brad Lidge had been exhausted in a season-long three-inning appearance in which he retired all nine batters, five by strikeouts.

"Got to get the guy back on the horse when he falls off it," Manager Phil Garner said of his decision to go with Miceli, who had given up consecutive homers in the eighth inning of Game 2, a 6-4 Cardinal victory.

Miceli pitched around Pujols, whose two-run homer in the first inning had given the Cardinals a 2-1 lead, walking him on four pitches before getting Rolen to pop out on the next pitch.

Edmonds, who said he went to the plate merely seeking a hit, fouled off the first pitch before sending the next one, a high fastball, over the Cardinal bullpen in right-center field, ending the 3-hour 54-minute game with the second consecutive walk-off homer in the series.

Jeff Kent had ended Game 5 with a three-run blast against Isringhausen, who said he had prepared an apology to his teammates Wednesday after giving up at least one run for the second consecutive outing.

Edmonds said he was "just happy to be a part of it," deflecting praise toward Tavarez and Pujols, whose aggressive baserunning helped the Cardinals score one run but may have cost them another.

After leading off the third inning with a double and staying at second on Rolen's infield single, Pujols tagged up and reached third on Edmonds' fly ball to left field that Craig Biggio caught at least 10 feet in front of the warning track. Pujols then jogged home on Edgar Renteria's two-run single that gave St. Louis a 4-2 lead.

The Cardinals came to bat in the fourth looking to re-establish at least a two-run cushion after Mike Lamb made it 4-3 in the top of the inning with a homer against starter Matt Morris.

Pujols ripped a two-out single past third baseman Lamb but ran through third base coach Jose Oquendo's stop sign on Rolen's double down the third base line that ricocheted off a wall in foul territory and into left field.

Shortstop Jose Vizcaino's throw to catcher Brad Ausmus was toward the third base side of the plate, but Ausmus corralled the ball and tagged Pujols on his right shoulder, prompting the slugger to flip away his batting helmet in disgust.

"I never saw Oquendo," Pujols said. "I looked back and saw where the ball was, and I thought I had a pretty good chance to score."

It didn't appear that Tavarez would pitch after Manager Tony La Russa opted for Isringhausen to open the eighth, an inning usually handled by Tavarez, but Tavarez said he never lost faith that he would pitch.

"I wanted to participate," Tavarez said. "I told them, 'I'll be fine and I want to pitch.' "

Since the incident in Houston, Tavarez said he had gone to sleep each night worried about whether he would be able to pitch again.

"I had to prove it to them," he said. "Everyone has the right to be upset about it because what I did was stupid. If I could erase it, I would."

Said General Manager Walt Jocketty: "The other night he showed his emotions and frustration. Tonight, he showed his emotions and jubilation. That's what you see more often with Julian."

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