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Carpenter flashes Cy Young form

Carpenter flashes Cy Young form

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ST. LOUIS -- The only folks associated with the St. Louis Cardinals that had reason to be unhappy Wednesday night were the groundskeepers that have to care for the Busch Stadium infield.

Thanks a lot, Chris Carpenter.

Carpenter, the Cardinals' starting pitcher in Wednesday night's Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, found his ground-ball magic, forcing the Houston Astros into 17 groundouts -- his second-highest total this season -- in eight innings of St. Louis' 5-3 victory. Carpenter forced 19 grounders on July 22 in a complete-game, 2-1 victory at Busch over the Chicago Cubs.

"I felt like I kept the ball down in the strike zone, and that's why I was getting those ground balls," said Carpenter, who went 21-5 during the regular season and has won both of his postseason starts. "My sinker was real good tonight and so was my cutter.

"I can control the 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."

Just in case you don't believe him, there are a few more bare patches at Busch to prove it.

If his pitching wasn't enough, Carpenter added a little more wear and tear to the infield with a couple of sacrifice bunts. One was a second-inning suicide squeeze -- a Cardinals specialty -- for a run. The other came in the fifth inning to move a runner into scoring position.

But it's when Carpenter is on the mound that worms beneath the infield start scouting out new property, although the creepy little crawlers had enjoyed a more peaceful existence in the month before Wednesday.

Through August, outs against Carpenter that weren't strikeouts broke down to 232 on the ground and 108 in the air. But since Sept. 1, including his six scoreless innings in an 8-5 victory over San Diego in the first game of the NL Division Series, it was 72 on the ground to 42 in the air -- not enough to place him in the fly-ball pitcher category, but not exactly his method of operation. His 5.73 ERA in September was also cause for concern.

Carpenter reversed that on Wednesday. The Astros did benefit from one of the few balls they hit in the air, Chris Burke's two-run homer with two down in the seventh. But Carpenter fanned Craig Biggio to end that inning, the last of his three strikeouts, and retired the Astros on three grounders in the eighth.

"[Carpenter is] really going after hitters, and ... getting in situations and making pitches and staying away from the big damage," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. "I mean, that's what he's been doing consistently."

Carpenter worked his ground-ball magic three times:

• With two down in the first, Cards center fielder Jim Edmonds watched Lance Berkman's deep liner bounce out of his glove for a double, but Carpenter ended the threat by making Morgan Ensberg bounce to the mound.

• Carpenter walked Craig Biggio and Willy Taveras with one out in the third, but escaped when second baseman Mark Grudzielanek went to his left to grab Berkman's hard grounder, spun and fired to shortstop David Eckstein to start a key double play.

•  Ensberg doubled to open the fourth and Carpenter faced runners at the corners with one out when he worked Adam Everett into a hard grounder. St. Louis third baseman Abraham Nunez threw to the plate, where Yadier Molina made a deft sweep tag on Ensberg.

Houston hitting coach Gary Gaetti lamented that some of the balls were stung, but ultimately Carpenter made the Astros feel pain.

"He has a knack of making a really big pitch at the right time," Gaetti said. "He had the bases loaded, came up and threw a curveball -- it wasn't a great curveball -- and got the guy to hit it to second base hard."

Carpenter knows a ground-ball pitcher can't accept all the laurels when all goes well. The double play to stop the third-inning rally is a recurring theme.

"They have been doing it all year," Carpenter said of his defense. "They have been doing it 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."

With the Astros delivering seven hits (five against Carpenter), the defense had plenty of tense situations, but at least they didn't take long. Carpenter did his business in an efficient 96 pitches, and the game lasted a tidy two hours, 29 minutes. Part of it was the Astros hitters consciously jumped early in the count, but they were able to be that aggressive because they could expect a strike.

"The way he works is phenomenal, between him and [Game 2 starter Mark] Mulder and [Matt] Morris, they get out there and throw," Grudzielanek said. "Defensively, we're not on our heels, ever. If people could see that, and other pitchers can understand what that means to us defensively, it's a huge lift."

Well, the turf managers at Busch can thank Carpenter for giving them more time to repair what his pitches wrought.

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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