HOUSTON (AP) – Poised as can be no matter how tough the task, Brad Lidge pulled off another great escape against St. Louis.

Now it’s the steaming-mad Cardinals who are in a serious jam in the NL championship series.

Defensive replacement Eric Bruntlett started a game-ending double play, Lidge wriggled out of a major mess in the ninth inning and the Houston Astros scratched out a 2-1 victory Sunday in Game 4 to move within one win of their first trip to the World Series.

Jason Lane homered, Willy Taveras made a saving catch on the center-field hill and Houston took advantage of a critical error by pitcher Jason Marquis – plus the ejections of St. Louis manager Tony La Russa and star Jim Edmonds – to build a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.

The Astros can close it out at home Monday night, with Andy Pettitte on the mound against Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter.

St. Louis has quite an uphill climb if it wants to win its second consecutive pennant. The Cardinals must face Pettitte, Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens in the next three games – if they can push it that far.

Once again in this postseason, the umpires were in the middle of all the action.

The Cardinals were angry about Phil Cuzzi’s liberal strike zone all afternoon, and La Russa and Edmonds were ejected in the late innings for arguing balls and strikes.

After Morgan Ensberg’s tiebreaking sacrifice fly in the seventh, Lidge entered with a 2-1 lead in the ninth.

The Cardinals managed a run against him Saturday for the first time in 31 innings, and they got something going again right away.

Albert Pujols hit a leadoff single and went to third on a single to right by ailing Larry Walker.

Reggie Sanders, who missed Game 3 with a sore neck and back, hit a bouncer to third, and Ensberg made a nice play to cut down Pujols at the plate.

But with nobody covering, Walker alertly dashed to third, putting runners at the corners again, this time with one out.

The Astros argued that they had called time out, but the umpires let Walker remain at third.

No matter to Lidge.

Lidge got John Mabry to hit a slow grounder to Bruntlett at second base, and shortstop Adam Everett turned a difficult double play that ended the game.

Stretching as far as he could, first baseman Lance Berkman gloved the ball just in time to get Mabry. First-base ump Larry Poncino punched him out – and replays showed the close call was correct.

Berkman jumped for joy, and the Astros rushed toward second base to mob Everett, who pumped his first in the air when he saw the final out called.

Garner made a string of defensive moves late – and they all paid off. Bruntlett came in for 39-year-old second baseman Craig Biggio, Berkman moved from left field to first and Taveras took over in center in the eighth after entering as a pinch-runner.

With a runner on and two outs in the eighth, Cuzzi called Dan Wheeler’s 3-1 pitch a strike to Edmonds, who walked over to Cuzzi, argued for a moment and was tossed.

John Rodriguez pinch-hit for Edmonds and sent a long drive to center, but the speedy Taveras raced back and up the Tal’s Hill incline for an outstanding catch about 410 feet from home plate.

Shouting from the dugout at Cuzzi, La Russa was ejected in the seventh after Marquis walked Berkman.

With the score tied at 1, pinch-hitter Orlando Palmeiro drew a leadoff walk from Marquis, who then bobbled Biggio’s bunt for an error. One out later, Berkman walked and Ensberg hit a bases-loaded sacrifice fly for a 2-1 Houston lead.

Both managers went to their bullpens in the sixth, despite solid outings by No. 4 starters Brandon Backe and Jeff Suppan.

The banged-up Cardinals got a big bat back: Sanders returned from a sore neck and back after missing Game 3, but third baseman Abraham Nunez sat out with a deep thigh bruise.

Backe walked leadoff batter David Eckstein in the first, usually a recipe for trouble. But the Houston right-hander pumped his fist after getting Edmonds to ground into a double play, then struck out Pujols.

Eckstein drew another leadoff walk in the fourth, and this time the Cardinals capitalized. Edmonds followed with a hit-and-run double to left for St. Louis’ first hit, finally bringing Pujols to the plate with runners on base. His sacrifice fly gave the Cardinals their first lead since Game 1.

In the bottom half, Lane, who hit the go-ahead single Saturday, came through again. He lofted a 1-2 pitch into the Crawford Boxes above the short porch in left, tying the score at 1.

Bouncing on and off the mound, the energetic Backe struck out seven and allowed only two hits in 5 2-3 innings. He was visibly disappointed when he was pulled after only 81 pitches, but manager Phil Garner wanted lefty Mike Gallo to face Larry Walker with a runner on.

Gallo got Walker to ground out, ending the sixth.

Pitching for the first time since Sept. 25, Suppan yielded three hits in five innings before giving way to Marquis to start the sixth. Suppan, who won 16 games each of the past two seasons, won two playoff clinchers last year, beating Clemens in Game 7 of the NLCS.

Notes: Mabry played 3B for the Cardinals, his first start of this postseason. … The Astros are 4-0 at home this postseason and have won seven home playoff games in a row. … Pujols barely missed a home run in the first inning, hitting a long drive to left just foul. … The 27-year-old Backe, a former schoolboy football star and an outfielder in the Tampa Bay system, is from nearby Galveston. He threw one-hit ball for eight shutout innings in Houston’s 3-0 victory in Game 5 of the NLCS last year, outdueling Woody Williams. There were only four hits in that game – the fewest in postseason history.

AP-ES-10-16-05 2048EDT


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