Tuesday, September 12, 2006 - At Busch Stadium III (Jeff Weaver - Starting Pitcher) - Opponent: Houston Astros (Andy Pettitte - Starting Pitcher) - Attendance: 41,453
Albert Pujols' two-out two-run ninth-inning double scored Skip Schumaker from second and Scott Spiezio from first - to lift the Cardinals to a dramatic 6-5 walk-off win over the Houston Astros.
Houston closer Brad Lidge - who gave up that famous game-winning three-run home run to Pujols in Game Five of the 2005 NLCS - was victimized once again by his nemesis. As the rest of the regular season unfolded, this particular game-winning Pujols hit was - quite simply - the difference between postseason play for the Redbirds in 2006 - or going home.
At the time, this win over Houston merely padded the Cardinals' lead to five games over their division rivals - with just eighteen games remaining on the schedule. However, that comfortable five-game lead would dwindle to a half-game - thanks in large part to a four-game sweep at the hands of the Astros - September 21 - 24 (Games 151-154).
Yes, it was unnerving to be a Cardinal fan at that time. But the Cardinals were a resilient team - as we all found out for sure, by the time the postseason rolled around.
Before all that ninth-inning excitement, this game was a see-saw battle throughout - with Houston striking first - on a first-inning solo home run by Mike Lamb off St Louis starter Jeff Weaver.
The Cardinals grabbed the lead in the third-inning - on Preston Wilson's two-out two-run home run off Astros starter Andy Pettitte. When the next batter - Scott Spiezio reached on an error by shortstop Eric Bruntlett, manager Phil Garner abruptly removed his starter - apparently due to some sort of injury. Pettitte had worked just 2.2 innings in this game - and that home run was the only hit he allowed. He walked one (who scored) and struck out two - but now he was suddenly out of the game.
Pettitte wouldn't appear in another game for the Astros until September 21 - when he worked five innings in a start vs the Cardinals - allowing five runs - in a game eventually won by Houston. Whether or not his absence from the Houston starting rotation played a role in the outcome of this crazy division race is just another topic in the "what if" game for 2006.
What we do know is that the Astros took the lead once again in this game - on pinch hitter Orlando Palmeiro's bases loaded two-run single in the fourth-inning: Houston 3 - St Louis 2.
The Cardinals tied it again in their half of the fourth, when the young, light-hitting catcher - Yadier Molina - singled with two out to bring home Edwin Encarnacion - who had previously tripled.
The Cardinals then took a short-lived lead in the fifth-inning - when Encarnacion come through again - with a two-out single - scoring Scott Spiezio from second: St Louis 4 - Houston 3.
Weaver's night would be over after facing two batters in the sixth-inning. The first one - Luke Scott - walked. The second one - Chris Burke - hit a two-run home run - giving Houston a 5-4 lead.
Reliever Josh Hancock struck out all three Houston batters - Bruntlett, Ausmus and Jimerson - to end the top half of the sixth. Two other relievers - Tyler Johnson (one inning pitched) and Braden Looper (two innings pitched) - also contained the Astros offense - allowing the Cardinals the opportunity to pull this one out of the fire.
The fateful bottom of the ninth began with pinch hitter John Rodriguez (batting for Molina) singled off Astros closer Brad Lidge to right field. Again, imagine the consequences if J Rod had failed to reach base safely. Luckily, he got that hit to start the game winning rally. Skip Schumaker then entered the game to pinch run for our unsung hero - then advanced to second when pinch hitter Jose Vizcaino (batting for Looper) laid down a sacrifice bunt.
But Lidge struck out Preston Wilson for the second out of the inning - then, the Cardinals got a break, when the next batter - Scott Spiezio - was hit by a pitch.
With runners on first and second - and the Cardinals down to their last out - Pujols stepped into the batter's box. After getting burned by Albert in last season's NLCS, Lidge had only faced his nemesis two times in '06 prior to this particular at bat. On both occasions, Pujols was retired on fly balls to deep center.
Not this time. Pujols lined a Lidge fastball down the left field line - into the corner. Spiezio got a great jump off first base - and was already rounding third - heading for home - by the time the left fielder had retrieved the ball. A jubilant Skip Schumaker - who scored the tying run - motioned for Spiezio to slide - and he did - with the winning run.
The significance of this win wouldn't be determined until the final week of the season. But this was the kind of thing Pujols did so often, Cardinal fans may have started taking it for granted. The truth of the matter is, without him, those eleven seasons (2001 - 2011) would have been nowhere near as exciting as they turned out to be. And there's no way the Cardinals would have even qualified for postseason play - let alone win the World Series - in '06 or '11.