St. Louis rolled past another playoff opponent on Wednesday night with almost the same blueprint as in its first three wins. The Cardinals beat Andy Pettitte and the Astros, 5-3, in the opener of the National League Championship Series, improving to 4-0 this postseason. They have outscored the Padres and Astros by a combined margin of 26-14 and have never trailed in any of those games.
The Redbirds excelled in nearly all phases of the game, though closing out the win was once again a little too interesting. They got a fine start from Chris Carpenter, mostly excellent defense and a diversified offensive attack that included a home run and a squeeze bunt.
"We know we're going to play," said manager Tony La Russa. "Whatever happens, happens. If you get beat, you get beat. But it's really clear that we're going to come out and we're going to play. We've been able to get off to a good lead because our pitchers have shut them down and our offense has done something. But we're ready for any kind of game."
Carpenter twirled eight innings to improve to 2-0 this postseason, tossing the longest start by a Cardinal thus far in the second season. He induced 17 groundouts vs. just four in the air, and kept the Astros quiet on the rare occasions that they threatened to rally.
Houston hitters went 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position against Carpenter, who has won the first two postseason starts of his career.
"I felt like I kept the ball down in the strike zone," said Carpenter, "and that's why I was getting those ground balls. My sinker was really good tonight and so was my cutter. I can control my game down in the strike zone with them and keep the ball down. It's tough to elevate when you hit a lot of ground balls."
Reggie Sanders stayed torrid with a two-run first-inning homer, and David Eckstein had two base hits and scored two runs. The St. Louis infield turned just one double play, but made just about all the key plays, including a pivotal fielder's choice out at home.
First things first
|History is on the Cardinals' side as they seek to play in the World Series for a second straight year. The winner of Game 1 of the NLCS each of the last 12 years has advanced to the Fall Classic.|
|2004||St. Louis||Beat Houston, 10-7|
|2003||Florida||Beat Chicago, 4-3|
|2002||San Francisco||Beat St. Louis, 9-6|
|2001||Arizona||Beat Atlanta, 2-0|
|2000||New York||Beat St. Louis, 6-2|
|1999||Atlanta||Beat New York, 4-2|
|1998||San Diego||Beat Atlanta, 3-2 (10)|
|1997||Florida||Beat Atlanta, 5-3|
|1996||Atlanta||Beat St. Louis, 4-2|
|1995||Atlanta||Beat Cincinnati, 2-1 (11)|
|1993||Philadelphia||Beat Atlanta, 4-3 (10)|
|1992||Atlanta||Beat Pittsburgh, 5-1|
To top it off, the Cards hung a rare LCS loss on Andy Pettitte, who had been 5-0 in his last six second-round starts and hadn't taken an LCS loss since 1998. If not for a pinch-hit homer by rookie Chris Burke, and an infield single and a rare Eckstein error in the ninth inning, it would have been a perfect night for the defending NL champs.
"I think you've got to give them a little bit of credit," said Astros manager Phil Garner. "They have been playing very well and if you make a mistake on Sanders, he hits it out of the ballpark. We had a couple of chances [to break through] ... We didn't do that, but Andy kept us right there for a couple of innings."
Sanders, moved to the cleanup spot in the batting order with the left-hander on the mound for Houston, immediately made the move look brilliant. He obliterated a 1-2 offering from Pettitte, placing it 445 feet away in the auxiliary press seating behind the visitors bullpen in left field.
Dating back to the regular season, Sanders has driven in a run in 10 straight games. The home run was his second of the postseason and gave him 12 RBIs in four playoff games. Entering this season, he had 13 RBIs in 56 career playoff contests.
"This is under such a big magnifying glass, and so everything is heightened when you come through in key situations," Sanders said. "There are times when I've been hot, but it was kind of shoved under the table. So now things are finally going in the right direction for me."
An inning after playing long ball, the Cardinals showed the other side of their offense with some beautiful small ball. Mark Grudzielanek hit a many-hopper up the middle for a leadoff single, then moved all the way to third on Abraham Nunez's cue shot of a single just inside the first-base line. Carpenter got the run home with a squeeze bunt that absolutely died in front of the plate, making it 3-0.
Run-scoring singles by Eckstein and Albert Pujols stretched the lead to five runs in the fifth, as the Cards kept up a pattern of early dominance in playoff games. They have scored at least the first four runs of every game this postseason, and have a combined 24-2 advantage in the first five innings of playoff games this year.
Carpenter handcuffed the Astros for the most part, but the visitors weren't without their chances. Houston sustained a major miss in the third inning when Carpenter issued consecutive walks to load the bases for Lance Berkman with one out. Berkman swung at the first pitch and hit into a 4-6-3 double play.
"He put a good swing on it, but it was right at Grudzy and he turned a great double play," Carpenter said. "They have been doing it all year. They have been doing it in the series against San Diego and they did it again tonight. You can't say enough about the two guys up the middle turning two. They do it all the time."
Another escape came an inning later, as a double and a walk led to a first-and-third, one-out situation. But Adam Everett grounded to third, and Nunez went home rather than taking the out at first. It worked out, with Yadier Molina applying the tag on Morgan Ensberg at home, and Brad Ausmus grounded out to end the threat.
"It's not an easy decision," Nunez said, "but you've got to remember that any run counts. The fewer times the opposite team scores, you've got a better chance to win. You can't give outs away. You can't give runs away. ... It changed the way the game went."
As has been the case in each previous game, however, the Cards let the opponent see a little daylight in the late innings. Burke mauled a two-run homer in the seventh that was conservatively estimated at 412 feet. The ball hit off the facade just below the upper deck in left field, a few feet to the left from the "Big Mac Land" sign.
In the ninth, a pair of singles, an Eckstein error and a sac fly closed the lead to two runs before Jason Isringhausen got Jose Vizcaino to ground out to end the game.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.