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Mulder aims to force a Game 7

Mulder aims to force a Game 7

ST. LOUIS -- Talk all you want about playing to the final out, but for a brief period on Monday night, St. Louis left-hander Mark Mulder thought his season was over.

Of course, coming from Mulder, that thought was not particularly defeatist. He could do nothing about whether he'd get to pitch again.

But St. Louis slugger Albert Pujols blasted the dramatic ninth-inning, three-run homer that gave the Cardinals a 5-4 victory over the Houston Astros in Game 5 of the National League Championship Series and made it possible for Mulder to start Game 6 on Wednesday night.

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"That was amazing," Mulder said on Tuesday, merely an off-day and not the beginning of St. Louis' offseason. "You go from one moment, trying to prepare myself to pitch in two days to going, 'All right, well, I guess I'm going home,' to, 'Are you kidding me?'

"And all of a sudden you're getting yourself ready to pitch again."

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa feels confident in Mulder's readiness.

Although he would have rather the Cards been the team on the edge of going to the World Series, he arranged his pitching schedule so Mulder would pitch Game 6. Part of it was to keep his left-hander away from Minute Maid Park, where Houston could have stacked the lineup with right-handed hitters and have them aim for the short left-field porch.

With the park not a factor, La Russa simply has put his trust in Mulder against Houston starter Roy Oswalt, who shut down the lineup and beat Mulder and the Cardinals, 4-1, in Game 2.

"We've seen Roy four or five times this year," La Russa said. "They've seen Mulder four times. It's not really going to be stuff, it's going to be command; you know, do you locate your pitches?"

Mulder is preparing in hopes of forcing a seventh game, as well as enhancing his postseason reputation. It actually isn't all that bad, because he usually pitches well. In the Cardinals' 4-1 Game 2 loss at Busch, he held the Astros to two runs total and one earned run in seven innings. He has a career 1.91 ERA in six postseason starts.

But Mulder has a 3-3 playoff record, including 1-1 this season. His previous postseason experience was with Oakland, so he never even saw an LCS.

To his credit, Mulder isn't the type to put extra pressure on himself because of his record, especially since he can only control so much. He certainly couldn't control the pitching of Oswalt.

Twice Mulder has pitched in deciding games. He gave up four runs, two earned, in 4 1/3 innings of Game 5 of the 2001 American League Division Series and didn't figure in the decision when the Athletics lost at Yankee Stadium, 5-3. In Game 5 of the 2001 ALDS, he held Minnesota to two runs on nine hits but received the "L" in Oakland's 5-4 defeat. In a sense, Wednesday is even bigger. It decides whether there is a deciding game. Mulder is embracing the excitement, rather than focusing on pressure.

"I'm always the same, you know," he said. "But obviously a game like this, you know what's at stake and you get excited about it.

"I know when I pitched in Game 5 in Yankee Stadium, it was like I felt like I was sitting in the clubhouse for 10 hours. The game just never seemed to start. You get anxious. You want to get out there and you want to get the game going, and I'm sure it'll be that way tomorrow."

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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