HOUSTON (AP) – Whoa there, Astros. Albert Pujols and the St. Louis Cardinals aren’t ready to hand over that NL pennant just yet.

With Houston only one tantalizing out from its first World Series, Pujols saved St. Louis by hitting a stunning three-run homer off Brad Lidge in the ninth inning, and the Cardinals rallied for a 5-4 victory Monday night in Game 5 of the NL championship series.

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.

After winning pitcher Jason Isringhausen closed it with two innings of scoreless relief, shocked fans filed quietly out of the ballpark.

Lance Berkman’s three-run homer in the seventh gave Houston a 4-2 lead, sending the crowd into a deafening roar.

The Astros then put the series in Lidge’s normally sure hands. But, trying for his fourth straight save in the series, he couldn’t come through.

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 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 took a moment to watch it sail while Lidge sunk into a crouch on the mound.

It was a crushing loss for the Astros and their “Killer B’s.” Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell are still trying to reach the World Series for the first time after 15 years as teammates.

AP-ES-10-18-05 0009EDTLambert’s winter pastime

Former EL star gets ready for the minors

While the 2005 Boston Red Sox were ending their season with a whimper, Bryan Lambert was working out only a few miles away, hoping the time and hard work he’s putting in will help him begin his first full season as a professional baseball player with a bang.

His first season now more than a month behind him, the former Edward Little and Brandeis University star is looking ahead to his first spring training in the Washington Nationals organization.

Lambert and his fiancee, Joanna Schleider, are living and working in Boston this off-season, living like a lot of engaged couples just out of college, scrimping and saving for the future. The difference is, most couples know where they’ll be next spring and summer. Bryan and Joanna aren’t so sure.

“We’re trying to save money and plan ahead so we can spend as much time together as possible next summer,” Lambert said.

Even with a season of minor league baseball under his belt, the right-hander is still amazed at how his life has changed in the last 12 months.

“This is going to be the first time during my whole life that I haven’t played basketball during the winter,” said Lambert, who was a two-time all-conference center the last two years at Brandeis. “I’ve never been as excited for the wintertime like I am this year. I’m going to devote the whole six months to getting ready to play baseball.”

Nearly every day of those six months have been planned by the Nationals, who signed Lambert in June as an undrafted free agent. The first month after the season ended was known as an “active rest period.” During this stretch, the team discourages players from doing anything other than cardiovascular work. Then, on Oct. 3rd, Lambert began his off-season training and conditioning program, a three-to-four hours a day regimen involving three days of weight-lifting and core workouts (with emphasis on strengthening the legs), and three days of cardio training. He’s been working out at his alma mater, helping out his former coach and teammates.

The 6-foot-9 Lambert weighed in at a solid 251 pounds recently. He’s used to being 10 or 15 pounds lighter this time of year preparing for basketball, but is eager to see how adding the muscle will help his velocity.

“I’m excited to see how this off-season of just eating and lifting and working out goes, and then going into spring training and seeing what it all does for my fastball,” he said.

He won’t be throwing any fastballs until after Thanksgiving, though. The Nationals’ program prohibits any throwing until Dec. 1, which is fine by Lambert.

“I think this year was the most I’ve ever thrown,” he said. “I must have thrown 80 or 90 innings (between Brandeis and the minor leagues).”

Despite going through more wear and tear, Lambert’s arm held up quite well, especially compared to a lot of his contemporaries.

“It’s crazy how many injuries there were,” he said. “I was one of the few pitchers from (the 2005) draft class that made it through the season without missing an appearance with soreness.”

Shortly after signing, Lambert reported to the Gulf Coast Nationals, Washington’s Rookie affiliate in Melbourne, Fla. He went 3-1 there with an impressive 1.54 ERA in 10 appearances, including one start. He then moved up to their Single-A affiliate, the Savannah Sand Gnats. After turning in what he believes was his best performance of the year in his Savannah debut, he struggled in his final two appearances and ended up posting a 1-1 record with a 6.00 ERA.

Lambert could return to Savannah to start the 2006 season, or, the Nats could move him to their Single-A clubs in Woodbridge, Va. or Winooski, Vt. That depends largely on how he does in spring training. Besides increasing his strength and his velocity, he hopes to refine his splitter, which he described as “touch and go” last summer because he didn’t throw it much in the spring for Brandeis.

Regardless of where he’s assigned, Lambert knows he still has a long way to go and intends to make important strides this winter. Now with a summer of minor league baseball under his belt, he has a pretty good idea of what lies ahead.

“One of my teammates said that playing in the minors is like Survivor,'” he added. “You’ve got to outluck, outlast and outplay everybody.”

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