What would happen if a runaway train ran into a funeral procession? We may find out this weekend as the Houston Astros, losers of nine of their last twelve games and plummeting down the standings, take the field against the Cardinals hours after their teammate Josh Hancock has been laid to rest.

These are hardly the best of circumstances to renew what has become the most keenly contested rivalry in the National League Central.

This regular season matchup should be top billing on the marquee, seeing as it features the winners of the last three National League pennants. However, the number of things that either of these teams is doing right on the baseball field can be counted on the fingers of one hand. And even the ghost of Mordecai "three-finger" Brown might have fingers left over.

Poor hitting? Check, and check. The Cardinals' situational hitting has been in the toilet throughout the young season, and nobody has been able to hit in the four spot at all; the Astros' two best hitters have struggled to put quality wood on the ball as well, as Lance Berkman's Bunyan-esque bat has been reduced to a single-slapping splinter, and phenom outfielder Luke Scott had a mere three singles in the last two weeks before last night's gamewinning heroics.

Poor pitching? Check, and check. Houston's Brad Lidge has suffered a brutal collapse this season, seemingly dragging most every member of the bullpen – except Dan Wheeler, the new closer – with him. The Cardinals' two young starting pitchers, Anthony Reyes and Adam Wainwright, have struggled to recapture any of the dashing form they held last October, and have ERAs hovering around six.

Poor fielding? Oh yeah, you betcha. The Cardinals have unwritten the words "routine fly ball" from the baseball dictionary; the Astros are squarely average on team defense, but balls to the left side of the infield have eaten up both the hot-corner men and the usually sure-handed Adam Everett, to the tune of eleven errors between them.

Poor managing? Well, their teams aren't managing to hit, nor are they managing to pitch, so clearly the managing is to blame. Both Tony La Russa and Phil Garner are intense competitors; neither would be heard in the post-game press conferences quoting Rocky Bridges, who once said, "I managed good, but boy did they play bad!"

So the spotlight moves away from these fast-fading champions, and perhaps rightly so. Where one team is lost in a fog, the other has been stricken with malaise. Both ailments have led to the murky bottom of a bad division. With the division-leading Brewers climbing well above .500 and rapidly disappearing in the standings, this three-game contest between these two teams may be moot if neither team shows signs of recovery.

A terrible bond

While the source of the Astros' malaise is a mystery, the Cardinals' mental fog following the death of their fellow man is not.

The Astros have seen the Cardinals awash in grief before, but it was their grief, too. Five summers ago, Darryl Kile, an adopted son of South Texas, passed suddenly from this world to the next, and Houston grieved with us. Kile pitched his first game in the big league with Houston, and 208 games more over the next seven years, before departing to the frost-bitten wasteland of Dante's Hades. And when Colorado released him from his earthly torment, he came to St. Louis and became reborn, and became our adopted son, too.

We remember the uncommon graciousness of the Cubs, and of their catcher Joe Girardi, who announced the cancellation of the game that day to the Wrigley crowds. We remember the numbness that happens when a time marked out for the joy of competition becomes an empty void. At those times every stricken person looks within. So we weren't watching when Houston took the field.

The Astros won their game that day in June, but couldn't celebrate, not after they had heard the news, not with every flag at the ballpark flying at half-mast. Jeff Bagwell added a tiny page to his hall-of-fame career, driving in the game-winning run in the 12th inning, but the hero of the game couldn't even speak afterwards.

Quoting from the game recap, from

"Bagwell, one of Kile's closest friends, broke down in tears moments after the game ended and, for the first time in 13 years, didn't make himself available to the media after the game."

Craig Biggio provided the post-game quotes, saying: "I lost a good friend today. I lost a friend, and I lost a teammate. Seven years playing with him, 12 years of friendship ... it's a tough loss."

Many members of the team were stricken by the loss, and the reports of a somber clubhouse are many. But it was especially meaningful to St. Louisans that the perennial faces of the enemy, Bagwell and Biggio, were streaked by all-too-familiar tears.

In this way, Kile's death, tragic as it was, fundamentally changed the relationship between these two teams.

The Astros and Cardinals were never divisional rivals until the leagues reorganized in the 90s, and had little regards for one another. The Cardinals were the bluebloods of the Midwest, the second-most-decorated team in baseball with a fan base that spread beyond the horizons, while Houston was a team with a domed ballpark that was still looking for its first playoff win. What love could exist between the traditional powers of the heartland, and the oil-soaked new kids of the NL?

From 1996 on, the two teams started jousting for control of the newlyformed Central. In every year that followed, one of these two teams crawled to the top over the carcass of the other, only to flame out once the playoffs started. This new rivalry didn't lack for bitter competition, on the field and in the front offices.

As both teams surged up the standings, they found themselves in competition for talent, and Walt Jocketty's dealings took a major step up in aggressiveness that coincided with Houston's advances, and Houston's general managers escalated as well. Jocketty poached Mark McGwire and rang the bell in ‘97; Houston answered with Moises Alou and Randy Johnson in ‘98. The Cards, in turn, got World Series hero Edgar Renteria that year, and Kile in '99. Houston brings back Ken Caminiti that year, and Jocketty ups the stakes once again by dealing for Jim Edmonds in 2000.

While St. Louis fans have always enjoyed the traditional rivalry with the Cubs, that became more of a sideshow to this rapidly escalating drama at the top of the standings. The Astros became "the team to beat." This was the rivalry that counted, and it culminated with the Astros earning the 2001 NL Central title at Busch Stadium, in the last game of the season, and celebrating on our turf.

At that point, there was no love lost between these two adversaries, but this was before June of 2002.

So when the two teams met on the field in September of that year, perhaps it was no surprise that they stood once again, 1-2 in the division. The Cardinals had hardened their grieving hearts, had made one more daring move with the acquisition of Scott Rolen, and had gone on an incredible tear over the last three months of the season to race out to a late lead. The Astros were starting to lose pace, but were still a dangerous 6.5 games back with seven head-tohead matchups between the two teams still scheduled. However, on September 20th, in the fifth of those seven games, Houston stood once again in Busch Stadium as the NL Central champs were crowned.

The Astros stomached a gutwrenching 9-3 loss that day, one that capped several weeks of frustration as opportunities to stay in the race kept slipping through their fingers. However, for the team's veterans, the pain was mitigated by this newfound brotherhood between the two teams that Darryl Kile's death had sowed.

Quoting's archives once again:

Biggio observed a poignant moment during the Cardinals' postgame celebration on the field. A clubhouse worker brought out Darryl Kile's jersey and handed it to Albert Pujols, who held it high above his head. The image appeared on the jumbotron and sparked another round of deafening cheers from the 34,990 fans in attendance.

Biggio watched that moment from the dugout before retreating into the silent Astros' clubhouse.

"It was nice. It was a class move," he said. "The one thing that's fitting in this situation is Mr. (Jack) Buck and DK especially. If any team had to win ... those guys had to go through a lot over there. What happened with Darryl, (the Cardinals clinching is) not a bad ending if you look at it from that standpoint."

The Cardinal Nation Top Stories