2004 NLCS: Recalling a forgotten classic

October 4th, 2018

This story was originally published on Sports On Earth in 2014.

There's an argument to be made that the 2004 National League Championship Series between the Houston Astros and St. Louis Cardinals is one of the best postseason series ever played.

Too bad few people watched. Viewership was down almost 30 percent from the Marlins-Cubs NLCS of a year before.

The reason for this had nothing to do with the participants and everything to do with what was going on at the same time: The ALCS between the Yankees and Red Sox, one that started out lopsided and ended as one of the most historic comebacks in playoff history.

But what the '04 NLCS lacked in national exposure it made up for in theatrics.

This series had everything -- walk-off homers, soul-crushing catches, unlikely hereos, an epic pitching duel and a beat-up dugout phone. Like its counterpart in the AL, this series started relatively slow, but finished with a flourish. The Cardinals won all of their home games. The Astros won all of theirs. The end result? A pennant for St. Louis, its first in 17 years. And heartbreak for the Astros, who looked at 2004 as their opportunity to slightly widen a window that was quickly closing on an aging club.

Here, some of the most prominent players of that NLCS (including Albert Pujols, Craig Biggio and Jeff Kent), managers Phil Garner and Tony La Russa, and writers who followed the teams closely, share their memories on the series' 10th anniversary.

The Astros and Cardinals were viewed as a relatively even match heading into the NLCS, which is somewhat ironic, considering the Cardinals coasted to the NL Central division title with 105 wins and the Astros needed all 162 games to clinch the Wild Card on the final day of the regular season (this was a year in which they came oh-so-close to blowing everything up and starting over). The two clubs were division rivals at the time who both respected and loathed each other, and they had no secrets between them; 18 regular-season matchups year after year takes away a lot of the mystery.

Woody Williams (starting pitcher, Cardinals): It was great. For seven games we beat up on each other. I think both teams were extremely tired at the end of that series, mentally and physically. The teams matched up very evenly regardless of the win-loss column. The Astros played the game the right way. They pitched well, played good defense and had an unbelievable lineup.

Jeff Kent (second base, Astros): Over the course of the year and the time I was there in Houston, so many times we had been counted out. We were nothing special in the playoffs at that time. We had only two quality starting pitchers on that team. And we're going up against the enemy, the Cardinals. Boston and New York were playing at the same time. It just felt like we were all by ourselves.

Matthew Leach (MLB.com editor, covered Cardinals in 2004): The thing [the Cardinals] hung their hat on was, 'We are the dominant franchise of the National League. We are National League royalty.' La Russa's teams had flamed out in the second round, in the LCS. There was this idea that Tony couldn't win in the LCS -- there was all this pressure. Winning the pennant that year was almost as big as winning the World Series two years later. To be back on top of the National League was an absolutely enormous deal.

GAME 1 (In St. Louis)
Two of the best offenses in the game were playing in the NLCS, but still, in postseason play, high-scoring games are not the norm. In that respect, Game 1 of the NLCS was an aberration, with the two teams combining for 17 runs in a 10-7 Cardinals win. It was St. Louis' first win in an NLCS opener in four tries under La Russa.

Williams pitched six effective innings for the win against his hometown team. He also doubled to start a two-run, fifth-inning rally that tied the game. The Cards exploited Houston's sometimes shaky middle relief with a six-run sixth.

Because of an elbow injury to Andy Pettitte, the Astros' rotation had been short-handed since August. Brandon Backe, who got the Game 1 start based on scheduling over merit, lasted 4 2/3 innings, but this game was blown by the bullpen, with Chad Qualls and Chad Harville suffering most of the damage.

Backe: It showed a lot about Phil [Garner] and how much confidence he had in me to take the ball to start that series. I think it just made sense. I was pitching well at the time. It put everybody in a better place as far as pitching rotation was concerned. Now, looking back, I can understand that there was a lot of pressure with those decisions and how it played out. At the time, I just didn't see it that way.

Williams: No matter who won that series, it was going to take a lot out of them. Boston was red hot and destined to win [the World Series]. [The NLCS], both teams were grinding it out. When we played each other there was a mutual respect, I felt, on both sides of the ball.

GAME 2 (In St. Louis)
Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen ripped back-to-back homers in the eighth inning off Dan Miceli, breaking a tie and propelling the Cards to a 6-4 win, their fourth victory in as many home games that postseason. The Cardinals' commanding 2-0 lead in the series, and a team perceived as the far superior of the two, had many wondering if this series was destined for a sweep. The players weren't thinking this way, however. The Astros had a closed roof that would trap the noise from 43,000 thousand screaming fans and a run of 19 wins in their last 20 home games working for them.

Kent: Our team was filled with just veteran ballplayers. With guys that had been around the block. Not necessarily at the peak of their careers -- I think that's such an overrated term -- but guys that understood the process of the game. When you go into a seven-game series, you don't worry about the front half. You worry about the back half. We knew we could score runs. We loved being at home.

Craig Biggio (outfielder, Astros): What happens a lot of times with media -- and stats do back it up at times -- is we hear, no team has ever done this, or that, or whatever. As players, we didn't put much credence into that. We were like, 'Hey, we're down 0-2, let's go ahead and take care of business today and worry about Game 4 when that comes about.'

La Russa: Playing in Houston, it was a very difficult visiting ballpark to play. It was like the Metrodome -- at its best times, the crowds were really excited. The Astros had a really good team. The fans were excited, it was very loud there. You had extra adrenaline. When we went to Houston, we were not overly-confident. We had a really good club and a really tough situation to play in.

Backe: It was just understood -- we're down 0-2, who cares? Coming home was big for us. It may have woken us up a little bit. We needed to buckle down and win at home.

GAME 3 (In Houston)
The Astros knew they could absolutely not afford to lose another game, and that's probably why only Roger Clemens and Brad Lidge pitched in this game, and probably also why the Astros won, 5-2, marking their 20th win in 21 games played at Minute Maid Park.

Clemens and Lidge wreaked havoc on plenty of teams, but it seemed like the Cardinals struggled against both pitchers more than others. St. Louis had chances against Clemens in the first few innings, but he turned to his split-finger fastball for the second and third times through the batting order, and struck out seven of the last 13 Cardinals who stepped in against him.

Lidge pitched the final two innings, striking out five of nine batters, including pinch-hitter John Mabry, who represented the tying run. Mabry struck out on three pitches, including Lidge's signature 89 mph slider that sparked an eruption in the stands.

Phil Garner (manager, Astros): When your closer is doing that, you've got some kind of confidence. Our bullpen was so strong. Before the postseason I told our pitchers, 'If I take you out in the fourth inning, don't take it personally. If you're a reliever and you throw one pitch and I take you out, don't take it personally, because you'll be in there tomorrow. We're just going to try to get every matchup we can. If you look like you're on tonight, you're in there. If you don't look like you're on, we're going to take a chance with someone else. It's nothing personal.'

Leach: The Cardinals could not hit Lidge at all. They couldn't hit Billy Wagner, and Lidge came along, and they couldn't hit Lidge. They could not touch either one of those guys, and they could not hit Clemens worth anything. Which is part of what made Game 7 so striking. They could never do anything with him. They couldn't touch his split. So Game 3 wasn't a shock because there were two guys they couldn't hit.

The Astros purposely kept the roof closed in order to keep the noise factor to their advantage, and the players agreed that it gave them a psychological advantage. Lidge, to reporters after the game, said, "It felt like the roof was going to blow the top off the place."

Garner: I kept saying to [owner] Drayton [McLane], 'We love it like this.' It was deafening. You couldn't hear yourself on the bench. It was unbelievable. So in '04, I thought it was a factor. No question it was a factor.

The Astros had routinely opened the roof in the sixth inning, after the sun went down, through the first four seasons after Minute Maid Park opened. In '04, however, the Astros started keeping the roof closed for the duration of the game.

Opposing teams didn't like the practice of opening it, arguing it changed the conditions on the field and made it tougher for their pitchers. Umpires didn't like it either. But the deciding factor was likely the Astros players -- more specifically, the older ones, like Clemens and Biggio -- who preferred the cool temps of a closed roof. Clemens in particular had McLane's ear, and was rarely denied anything he asked for. The fact that the Astros stopped opening the roof in '04, Clemens' first year with the team, was hardly coincidental.

GAME 4 (In Houston)
The Cardinals were able to contain Carlos Beltran ... for all of six innings._

Beltran, an impending free agent who had been acquired that July from Kansas City, put on a showcase for offseason suitors that October, hitting .435/.536/.1.022 with eight homers and six stolen bases in six attempts. He golfed a solo homer off Julian Tavarez in the seventh inning as the Astros came from behind to beat St. Louis, 6-5, in Game 4 to even the series. The game ended with a Brad Lidge strikeout, one that, according to Astros officials, sparked a crowd response so loud that it registered 116 decibels under the closed roof at Minute Maid Park.

Leach: That was the game in which Julian Tavarez lost his battle with the dugout phone after Beltran golfed one out against him. He attacked the bullpen phone and amazingly, he had the smarts to do what Crash Davis told him to do, and that's don't swing with your pitching hand. He was actually able to pitch a couple days later because he basically got a splint on the broken bones and got his glove adjusted and was able to put his glove on his non-pitching hand.

La Russa: You watch Beltran going into the series, he was swinging better and better and better. He'd do something good and then he'd be better the next night. We were very concerned about him, for good reason. We tried our best to change our pattern and he still got hits.

Beltran: Some of the veteran guys, Bagwell, Biggio, who were there for a long time, came to me and said, 'You know what? Go out, have fun and enjoy, man.' This is a great opportunity for me, playing all those years in Kansas City and never experiencing anything like this. It was a great atmosphere and of course something as a player once you experience that you want it, hopefully to experience many times in your career.

La Russa: You always worry about a very talented player that's peaking at the moment you're playing him, especially at that moment in the postseason. Houston and Carlos had all that going for them. He's really got special talent.

Kent: He was a quiet guy. He wasn't a guy that you would jump on his shoulders and carry you kind of a guy. But in the playoffs -- he didn't come from nowhere, but he just unleashed.

Biggio: He was Superman. I played with a lot of guys, over a long period of time, and I've seen some amazing streaks that guys put together. To be able to do that during the postseason -- even his outs were hard. It was a display of nothing I'd ever seen before. We're not talking about chinkers here. Every single ball was squared up. 

GAME 5 (In Houston)
Backe wasn't the least likely Astros pitcher to crack the postseason starting rotation -- that dubious honor belonged to journeyman Pete Munro -- but given his inexperience in a variety of areas, Backe wasn't exactly your prototypical Game 1 and 5 starter in the NLCS. The 26 year-old was drafted as an outfielder and converted to pitching three years later. He spent much of 2004 in the Minors, used out of the bullpen for a chunk of time.

On the Cardinals' side, veteran righty Williams, one of St. Louis' most reliable and successful starters, was equally amped for this game. The 38-year-old Williams was also a local product, born and raised in Houston and an alum of the University of Houston. Williams pitched well everywhere, but the Astros' ballpark was extra meaningful, regardless of the time of year.

What unfolded was one of the more unlikely pitchers' duels in postseason history. Over eight scoreless innings, each allowed one hit.

Brad Ausmus (catcher, Astros): You wouldn't look at Brandon Backe in a Minor League game and say, 'This guy is a big game pitcher,' but he absolutely was. It's the games between that he had more trouble concentrating on. The big game, he loves.

Mike Matheny (catcher, Cardinals): This wasn't a Clemens and Randy Johnson matchup, but it was two guys that were pitchers and knew how to get guys out. Those were two teams that just felt like both of them were good enough to walk away with the [pennant]. Woody was a big leader on our team. He'd say things when they needed to be said, he went about things the right way and he just had leadership characteristics. Usually those guys when they get on those bigger stages, they make it happen regardless of if there's overpowering stuff or not.

Williams: I was so focused on my side of things. Obviously we both knew it was a scoreless game and nobody was really getting on base. Not only were we throwing well, the defense was amazing. It was a combination of making my pitches, but at the same time everyone contributing to make it 0-0.

Backe: I'm almost glad that we didn't score. The rhythm of the game was very smooth. I wasn't sitting on the bench for a long time because we scored four or five or six runs. Obviously, I would have loved that, but because I was in the zone -- and I'm sure Woody can say the same thing -- it helps when I'm in and out of the dugout, back on the mound, getting back in that zone, staying fresh with my rhythm and tempo and my mechanics.

Biggio: Brandon is a very confident guy, and in order to be successful in the game you have to believe in your ability. If you don't believe in yourself then you're never going to be successful in this game. He went out and used his passion and energy in a dynamic way to make him really, really successful. It was fun to be a part of. He loved it.

Ausmus: I always used to tell him when he throws a pitch, take an extra step toward home plate, because that made him finish his pitches. He had two speeds on his curveball -- a slower one and a harder one -- that were a lot of fun to call in certain situations because you could almost toy with hitters with the change of speeds in his curveball.

Backe: It goes without saying that a great catcher can make a mediocre pitcher pretty darn good at any given time. I wouldn't dare say that in front of Ausmus, but he was huge in the progression of me as a pitcher. All I had to do was nod my head yes, envision the pitch I was about to make and then make it happen.

Albert Pujols was one of several Astro-killers on the Cardinals, but he was the most feared. Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker admitted Pujols drove him nuts. "I was almost obsessed with the fact that even in a bases-loaded situation you might even consider intentionally walking him," Hunsicker said. "He was that good against us."

Garner felt he had come up with a way to temper Pujols, if only he could get his pitchers to buy into it. He failed with all of them, except one -- Backe. He showed the pitcher a location grid that showed bright red where Pujols hit the best, pink where he was cool and blue where he couldn't hit it.

"It was all bright red except for one area," Garner said. "Down and in."

_Still, Astros pitchers insisted on throwing Pujols sliders away. Roy Oswalt's penchant for doing so frustrated Garner, who felt Pujols should never be able to hit him. In Backe, Garner had a willing participant. "He kept going down and in, down and in, down and in," Garner said. _

Pujols would eventual win series MVP and matched Beltran with home runs (four) and posted a higher OPS (1.563 to 1.521), but in Game 5, he went 0-for-3 against Backe, grounding out twice and hitting a popup to second base.

Garner: He stayed in there, and totally neutralized Pujols. He actually looked at the chart, said, 'I'll do it.' He had the [guts] to do it, and he pitched a brilliant game.

Meanwhile, Williams followed suit, allowing three baserunners in seven frames.

Matheny: Woody was putting the ball wherever he wanted to. You look at the radar gun and it's 88, 89, but it's wherever he wanted it to be. He was dialed in. That's a tough spot. That's his hometown. ... It was fun watching a competitor on a big stage like that.

The closers took over in the ninth. Facing Brad Lidge, Tony Womack grounded out, and Larry Walker and Pujols struck out. Beltran led off with a base hit off Jason Isringhausen and, during Lance Berkman's at-bat, stole second. That prompted La Russa to make a crucial decision that ended up being a game-changer.

Lance Berkman (outfielder, Astros): Isringhausen owned me. I had no success against him. First base was open and they intentionally walked me to get to Kent. Tony went out there and they decided to walk me. I remember being relieved. I was down at first base, thinking, I had no chance at hitting that guy.

Kent: Barry Bonds was walked a ton of times in front of me when I was in San Francisco. I've experienced the emotional roller coaster you go through when you're on deck. Once you see the manager call for four pitches -- and I had a funny feeling they were going to do that anyway -- I remember looking at La Russa, thinking, 'What the heck are they going to do,' and when I saw them point to four fingers, I thought, 'OK, let's go.'

Isringhausen, to reporters after the game: [La Russa] came out and told me that if [Beltran] stole second, we were going to walk Berkman. That's what we did. I didn't want to, but I never want to walk somebody. But if they score, they win. It doesn't matter if he's at the plate or first base. Beltran's the winning run. We've got to try to set up the double play.

Kent: At that point it just becomes a rhythm of not watching [Berkman] walk, but instead closing your own eyes and not listening to the crowd getting all amped up, not listening to the music, not playing into the thought that La Russa thinks you can't do it, and Berkman can. You fight back. Berkman walked and it was all a blur and I already had my plan. I had my plan in my own head of what I wanted to do. Just control all your emotions and all your thoughts so you can execute your plan, which was look for the first pitch that I can drive. And I got one.

La Russa: I did regret that it didn't turn out well, but I had a lot of time to weigh the plusses and minuses. That decision was what I thought gave us the best chance to win. Berkman was a high-average hitter against our club, a very good hitter. Izzy was significantly more effective against a right-hander. It was not a tough move to make. It was out of respect for Berkman. It was not meant to disrespect Kent.

Will Leitch (MLB.com writer and Cardinals fan): I was like every other Cardinals fan watching that -- I fell on the floor and screamed. It felt like the end.

Richard Justice (MLB.com columnist, formerly of the Houston Chronicle): In the whole history of Houston sports, when Jeff Kent is rounding the bases, and the ballpark is shaking ... I remember looking down at my hands and my hands were trembling. There's no way to capture what it meant to everybody in that city.

Garner: Everybody went crazy. That's when you feel bulletproof. That's the greatest feeling in the world. There's nothing you can't do. You feel like we've got it now. We're going to win this thing.

Kent: When you give people hope, that's an accomplishment. And that's what I felt I did. I felt I gave the city of Houston hope they've never had before.

Leitch: If I'm an Astros fan, when Kent hits that home run, I feel like I've won the series. You have to feel like you won the series at that point. To have Clemens waiting in Game 7 and a Cardinals team clearly reeling -- they've now lost three in a row -- you have to feel like you have them on their heels.

Justice: There was no question about it. We all thought they were going to win the pennant. And they were close enough to taste it and touch it. And for the tortured history these guys had not winning in the postseason, to do this, it just felt different.

Pujols: That just pushed it to St. Louis. We could've closed it out over there, and obviously they swept us over there, and then we end up taking two games back home. But Kent -- great hitter. That's what great hitters do. He came up huge at a big time for them, to push it to Game 6 and Game 7.

GAME 6 (In St. Louis)
Heading home, the Cardinals did not lack confidence, but this certainly wasn't how they envisioned it after taking Games 1 and 2. Still, the pitching matchup for Game 6 favored St. Louis, and it wasn't close. Journeyman Pete Munro, Houston's Games 2 and 6 answer to replace Pettitte, wasn't much of a threat. On the Cards' side, the reliable Matt Morris gave St. Louis every bit of confidence that this series would see a decisive Game 7.

Neither pitcher influenced the outcome. The game went 12 innings, with Jim Edmonds sending the Busch Stadium crowd into Richter-scale delirium with a massive 405-shot to right field off overworked Dan Miceli.

The Cards had waited out Houston's impenetrable closer, Brad Lidge, surviving the ninth, 10th and 11th with the right-hander on the mound. Miceli entered the game in the 12th, and issued a leadoff walk to Pujols. Rolen popped up, and Edmonds ended the game after three hours, 54 minutes.

La Russa: The Edmonds home run was one of the most thrilling moments we had ever experienced in uniform. It kept us alive. I can remember just the joy of it, that we were going to get one more chance, and it's not over. We had been to the Championship Series three times and not qualified. It looked like maybe were going to get a fourth time. It's difficult to get that close and not win a league pennant and play in a World Series.

Edmonds: I was really just trying to hit a ball hard to get a ball in the gap or get a base hit and get Albert to third base. I got a pitch up in the zone. We had waited for about three innings for Brad Lidge to get out of the game. He was virtually unhittable at the time. Fortunately for us, I got a pitch up in the zone and put a good swing on it. I really wasn't thinking much at the time. Just trying to hit the ball on the barrel and get Albert in motion.

Leitch: There was something about the way that he did it. It was majestic. Pujols' homer the next year almost felt too aggressive. It just felt mean. Whereas Edmonds, like most of Edmonds' game, had this beauty and poetry to it. It was a soaring, beautiful homer. The minute he swung, everybody who saw it knew it was gone immediately.

Edmonds: I think you always dream about being in that situation. You never know how you're going to react until it happens. It was a weird reaction for me. When you're in that situation and you're actually in the game, you know anything can go wrong with one pitch.

Kent: Personally, I don't have anything against Edmonds. But I do not like him, as an opponent, because of things like that. Because of the home run.

Leach: Everything about that was definitive Edmonds. It was why people elsewhere hated him and why people in St. Louis loved him.

Kent: I remember playing against him in Anaheim. I just didn't like him. When he did that, it just created more anger, more hatred for me. It was all professional -- professional hatred. Not personal. But he was personally taking the life and hope out of me. Watching it unfold, it was bad. That was bad.

Matheny: I think we all just remember Jimmy's reaction when he hit it, because that's what we were watching more than anything. He knew if he got it or not. Whenever you have a game like that, it's relief, like, we can live and we still have another game.

Jim Hickey (pitching coach, Astros): Oswalt was in the bullpen for Game 6. Roy was ready to go. He was actually going to come in during the game. He was ready in the 11th inning and he felt good. I remember looking at Gar as the 11th inning ended and I said, 'You know, Roy is ready.' He said, 'Miceli's in the game.' I didn't argue.

GAME 7 (In St. Louis)
It's not often that a defensive play in the second inning is remembered as a turning point -- possibly THE turning point -- that shifts favor in one team's direction. But that's what Edmonds' catch of a would-be Ausmus two-run double in the second inning of Game 7 was -- a lift for the Cardinals and a deflating gut-punch for the Astros, who, had Edmonds not gotten to that ball, would have been up 3-0. Craig Biggio had led off the game with a homer, Roger Clemens was pitching, and things were looking good for Houston.

"I'm sitting out there going, 'Man. Is this going to happen?'" Biggio said. "I dreamed about going to a World Series my whole life and then to lead off the game with a homer, you're up 1-0, Roger's pitching, this is like storybook stuff. It was going to be awesome. At the end of the day, it was awesome for the other team and not for us."

Ausmus sent the ball to left-center, to a place few outfielders would be able to get to even in a full-out sprint. This was Edmonds, however, the same Edmonds whose penchant for playing shallow never stopped him from circus-like catches that had become his trademark.

Edmonds: I had seen Brad Ausmus hit a thousand times. I knew exactly where he would hit the ball depending on where it was pitched. I was playing accordingly to how they were going to pitch him. I knew they were going to keep the ball down and away and he was just going to hit the ball to right field. He got a fastball out over the plate. As soon as the ball came out of [Jeff Suppan's] hand, I knew that he was going to pull the ball. So I got a pretty good jump.

La Russa: We definitely knew if that ball gets by him, with Roger on the mound ...

Edmonds: I knew that if I didn't catch that ball, we were going to lose that game. That's kind of funny to say, but it's one of those things when you're in the outfield, you know. The ball's hit. You're like, 'Uh oh, I've got to catch this.'

Matheny: It looked like Jimmy was even more shallow than Jimmy usually plays. As soon as that ball was hit, I couldn't tell what his first step looked like. But I'm thinking, man, he's way in.

Ausmus: It's because of my lack of power. It's well-documented.

Garner: We're stunned. I'm at ground level and I see that ball go off Ausmus's bat, and I'm thinking there's no chance. Edmonds plays shallow anyway, and Ausmus smoked that ball. There's no way he catches the ball. Absolutely no way.

Matheny: That's one of those 10 years or 30 years from now, I'll remember that one. It set the tone for that game. That would have been a tough one to overcome, especially with Roger on the mound, knowing you're not going to get a whole lot.

Garner: I read somewhere where Edmonds said he didn't think he was going to catch it, and he dives, and the ball floats back to his glove. Or fades. Something like that. I'm thinking, that's a God thing.

Rolen: Before that catch, we were in trouble. You could see it unraveling a little bit. A defensive play that changes momentum -- you don't see that very often. You see a three-run homer, you see some stuff. But that was a defensive gem that stopped the game in its tracks.

Ausmus: It's early and you feel like you're going to get another chance, but it was definitely a game-changing catch. If he dives and misses it, you're probably looking at a triple and two runs in. 

Berkman: That's what won the series for them.

Pujols: If that ball falls, it would've changed everything.

The Cardinals hadn't had much luck against Clemens at any point in '04 -- he had a 2.36 ERA against them in four starts -- but they did enough in Game 7 to beat him. Clemens held the Cardinals to one run through the first five innings, but they got him in the sixth, behind an RBI double by Pujols and a two-run homer from Rolen.

Rolen: I'm on deck, and their pitching coach went out to talk to him. I remember thinking, 'Don't take him out. Don't take him out.' Not that I want to face Roger Clemens, but I'd seen him a couple times, I had squared some balls up. I want this at-bat. I want this at-bat right here, right now.

Leach: Clemens decided twice to throw fastballs, one of them to Rolen.

Rolen: I walked in to the box and the first pitch is a pitch I hit out of the ballpark. I was in a spot where you just get locked in. I don't get emotional. I don't get overconfident about stuff. But I wanted to beat him.

Hunsicker: It was almost too difficult for me to watch the game. In fact, I can recall leaving the suite and walking off by myself. I never had been as intense or emotional about a game probably to this day as I was about that.

Ausmus: It was definitely to that point in my career it was probably the worst loss. You're so close to being in the World Series. And most of us on that team hadn't been to one.

Hunsicker: It was so winnable and so much was riding on it. I was having flashbacks during that game about how many tough series we'd been in with this organization, trying to get to a World Series, and how close we were at that point. And how much was riding on this game, not just for this team, but for the city, and for the franchise. Just for the whole organization. I felt tremendous stress thinking about those things.

Edmonds: We were pretty excited for a lot of guys to get a World Series for the first time. We knew how it was to get there. It was exciting and relief at the same time. We had been on the verge of it for three out of four years.

Kent: I was more embarrassed than anything. I had showed a bunch of emotions a couple games before and here we were, losers. I probably felt the worst of anybody in there.

Justice: It was terrible for the Astros. You felt terrible because your heart becomes invested in them and you wanted it to happen so badly. It was total silence. Bagwell and Biggio didn't want to put their clothes on. They didn't want to take the uniform off. Because this wasn't how it was supposed to be.

Biggio: It was exhausting. You're exhausted for your fans, you're exhausted for your team. We did everything we could have done to try to get to the World Series. It was very quiet. Very quiet flight home, too.

For all of the dramatics that the 2004 NLCS produced, what happened in both the near and distant future wasn't nearly as compelling.

The Cardinals, perhaps feeling a bit of a letdown after such an emotional series with the Astros, were handily swept by the Red Sox in the World Series. Carlos Beltran, as expected by everyone except Astros owner Drayton McLane, departed via free agency, signing with the Mets. And the Astros finally won their coveted pennant in 2005, but were swept by the White Sox in the World Series.