HOUSTON Missing his most overpowering stuff, 43-year-old Roger Clemens gritted his teeth and pushed his hometown Houston Astros closer to their first World Series.
After all, this is why he put off retirement twice.
Clemens held the Cardinals in check with six gutsy innings, Mike Lamb homered and Houston held off St. Louis 4-3 Saturday in Game 3 of the NL championship series.
''It's just experience, I guess,'' Clemens said. ''Sometimes, especially this time of year, you have to will yourself through some innings.''
Brad Lidge finally allowed a run against the Cardinals, but got David Eckstein to fly out with a runner on second to save it. The Astros took a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series and need two more wins to reach the Fall Classic for the first time in the franchise's 44-year history.
''I'll do whatever we need to do,'' Clemens said. ''We need to make it happen.''
With two games remaining at Minute Maid Park, Houston can wrap up the series at home. Game 4 is Sunday, with Brandon Backe scheduled to face St. Louis' Jeff Suppan.
''Roger pitched a Roger game,'' Cardinals outfielder Jim Edmonds said. ''They got two great pitching performances and we haven't been able to score. But if we win tomorrow, we're even. There's a lot of games left to play.''
The Astros nearly won the pennant last year, but Clemens blew a two-run lead and lost Game 7 of the NLCS at St. Louis. This was his first chance to begin avenging that defeat, and he delivered despite coughing up a 2-0 cushion again.
His teammates picked him up with a couple of key hits, including Jason Lane's tiebreaking single, and the Rocket improved to 12-8 lifetime in the postseason.
And he might be on the mound again: If this year's series goes the full seven, Clemens is scheduled to start the final game.
Of course, if Houston drops the next three, this could have been the final outing of his remarkable career.
''I was trying to stay extremely tall and violent on the mound, so my stuff was moving well,'' said Clemens, bothered by a strained hamstring down the stretch. ''Legs feel fine. You know, it was just emptying the tank.''
The banged-up Cardinals, already playing without left fielder Reggie Sanders, lost third baseman Abraham Nunez to a bruised thigh but he hopes to play Sunday. Nunez only became a regular starter because All-Star Scott Rolen is sidelined following shoulder surgery.
Larry Walker did play, despite an ailing neck, and delivered a sacrifice fly.
Third-stringer Hector Luna made a key error at third, and the Cardinals dropped their second game in a row after taking the opener at home.
The home team has won nine of 10 games between the clubs in the last two NLCS meetings.
Clemens' previous outing was Sunday, when he came out of the bullpen for his first relief appearance in 21 years and rescued the Astros in the longest postseason game ever played.
The final Houston pitcher available, he threw three shutout innings and struck out four of his 11 batters to earn the win as the Astros beat Atlanta 7-6 in 18 innings to advance to the NLCS.
He talked Friday about understanding that his job since he came home to Houston involves more than just pitching. With Astros mainstays Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell nearing the end of their careers, there's an urgency to make the World Series now.
The Rocket showed plenty of determination Saturday. Making his 32nd career postseason start, he even singled in his first at-bat.
Clemens struck out only one matching his lowest total of the season, also against St. Louis on July 17. But he kept the ball down and minimized the damage in the fifth and sixth, allowing six hits and walking two overall.
''He's unbelievable,'' Lamb said.
Chad Qualls pitched two scoreless innings, and Lidge worked the ninth for his second save of the series. He gave up a two-out RBI double to pinch-hitter John Mabry, snapping a string of 31 consecutive scoreless innings against St. Louis dating to 2003.
''I think it just proves he's human,'' Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. ''I mean, he's really, really good, but if you compete against anybody, you have a chance to break through.''
Losing pitcher Matt Morris, who won the clincher in a first-round sweep of San Diego, matched Clemens until the fourth, when he issued a leadoff walk to Morgan Ensberg. Lamb then lifted a 2-1 pitch to the opposite field over the short porch in left, his second homer of the postseason.
''I've seen them do it a number of times, flip it over into those boxes,'' Morris said. ''I didn't think he hit it as good as he did, and I don't think he hit it that good anyway but it went out.''
Now Clemens had a 2-0 lead, just as he did in Game 7 last year.
Again, he couldn't hold it.
Yadier Molina and Nunez grounded singles to start the fifth, and Eckstein hit a sacrifice fly. Lane ran down So Taguchi's long drive to right, ending the inning.
Albert Pujols and Edmonds opened the sixth with singles, and Walker's sacrifice fly tied it. With runners at the corners, Clemens retired Nunez on a tapper near the plate.
''It's damage control. You want to stay away from a big inning,'' Clemens said. ''I've been in this game long enough to know that you're going to get tested. Throughout the ballgame, at least twice, you're going to have to get out of trouble.''
Lamb doubled with one out in the bottom half, and Lane followed with a go-ahead single.
Brad Ausmus singled to right, Lane turned for third and Nunez came up the line to field Walker's throw. As Lane went down to slide, one of his knees crashed into Nunez just above his left knee, leaving the St. Louis third baseman on the ground in pain.
Moments later, he was helped off the field.
Luna came in to play third and Brad Thompson relieved Morris.
Lo and behold, Adam Everett hit a chopper toward third that Luna gloved cleanly. But his throw to the plate was high and wide, allowing Lane to score on the error and give Houston a 4-2 lead.
Notes: Taguchi played LF in place of Sanders, still bothered by a sore neck and back after an awkward fall in Game 2. Sanders hopes to play Sunday. ... Lamb entered 5-for-14 (.357) with three homers against Morris.
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