HOUSTON -- They were perched atop the dugout steps, ready to race onto the field for a wild celebration.
And with one mighty swing, Pujols saved St. Louis by hitting a stunning three-run homer off Brad Lidge in the ninth inning as the Cardinals rallied for a 5-4 victory Monday night in Game 5 of the NL Championship Series.
"I just couldn't believe I did it," Pujols said. "Couldn't be better than this."
Pujols' shot over the train tracks high above the left-field wall sent the series back to St. Louis for Game 6 on Wednesday night, with Mark Mulder set to face Houston's Roy Oswalt. The Cardinals also staved off the wrecking ball at Busch Stadium, scheduled for demolition as soon as their season is over.
One strike from ecstasy before David Eckstein's ninth-inning single, the Astros dropped to an agonizing 0-5 with a chance to clinch the NLCS.
One moment, Minute Maid Park was buzzing. The next, it was silent.
"It was devastating. We thought we were going to the World Series. We were there," Lance Berkman said. "Obviously, it was a high to a low, and it wasn't much fun."
After winning pitcher Jason Isringhausen closed it with two innings of scoreless relief, shocked fans filed quietly out of the ballpark.
They came to see something they had never seen before, their hometown heroes advancing to the World Series. Instead, they saw another kind of history.
It was only the second time in postseason history that a team facing elimination and trailing in the ninth inning hit a go-ahead home run, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The other was Dave Henderson's homer for Boston off the Angels' Donnie Moore in Game 5 of the 1986 ALCS.
Berkman's three-run homer in the seventh off Chris Carpenter gave Houston a 4-2 lead, sending the crowd into a deafening roar, and the Astros appeared ready to wrap up this NLCS rematch.
They put their fate in Lidge's normally sure hands. But, trying for his fourth straight save in the series, he couldn't come through.
"This is a bump in the road, but there's no way this is going to get anybody down," Lidge said. "This will sting a lot tonight, but when I wake up tomorrow I'll be ready to go"
After Lidge retired his first two batters in the ninth, the pesky Eckstein grounded a single to left on a 1-2 pitch. Jim Edmonds worked out a walk and Pujols, who had failed to deliver with runners on all night, drove an 0-1 pitch over the limestone facade.
Astros starter Andy Pettitte, in the dugout and ready to celebrate with his teammates, mouthed the words "Oh, my" as the ball left the park. Pujols tossed his bat and took a moment to watch it sail while Lidge sank into a crouch on the mound.
When Pujols got back to the dugout, manager Tony La Russa grabbed him for a huge hug.
"He just told me, 'The Great Pujols,'" the slugger said. "They're going to be ready in St. Louis. We just need to win two before we lose one."
"It's terrible. You're high as a kite one minute," manager Phil Garner said. "We were feeling pretty good, but you have to play every out."
With a chance to reach the World Series for the first time in their 44-season history, the wild-card Astros drew a revved-up crowd that was ready to party. Some wore those bright, old rainbow jerseys, and even owner Drayton McLane was jumping out of his box seat now and then.
When the Astros went ahead late, a nice touch of symmetry seemed to be in store: Exactly 45 years ago Monday, Houston was awarded an expansion franchise at an NL meeting in Chicago.
That's where the winner of this series will go -- to face the White Sox -- but it's not over yet, thanks to Pujols.
"It's the biggest hit I've ever seen," Carpenter said.
Biggio's broken-bat RBI single with two outs gave Houston a lead in the second.
Drawing on all his postseason experience, Pettitte pitched out of trouble in the first two innings -- but couldn't escape in the third.
Mark Grudzielanek, batting .138 in the postseason when he stepped to the plate, looped a soft single to right, driving in two runs for a 2-1 lead.
Peering over his glove in familiar fashion, Pettitte gave up two runs and seven hits in 6 1/3 innings. He was tagged for five runs in a Game 1 loss, when he pitched with a swollen right knee after getting struck with a sharply hit ball while running the bases during batting practice.
- Edmonds' seventh-inning popup hit the roof and was a foul ball by rule even though it was caught in fair territory by SS Adam Everett.
- In a nod to hockey tradition, Pettitte sported a playoff beard, just as many of his teammates have lately.
- The only pitcher to save four games in an LCS was Oakland's Dennis Eckersley against Boston in 1988.