The Cards gave Matt Morris a healthy cushion, and the right-hander responded with six capable innings for his second career playoff win. Every Cardinals starter, including Morris, had reached base by the end of the fifth inning, and every one but Larry Walker tallied a base hit.
"We got an early lead, and that's big for us," said center fielder Jim Edmonds, who doubled and scored in the second. "It's really tough in playoff games to battle back all the time. Our starting pitching did a great job, and we got enough runs to get going."
Eckstein led off the game with a single against Williams, who pitched for the Cardinals for three-plus seasons. Albert Pujols doubled to right, driving in the shortstop as the Cards scored the first run for the third time in as many games. St. Louis outscored San Diego, 13-0, over the first four innings of the three contests and 19-2 through the sixth inning.
That tells a story partly of a San Diego staff that was thin behind ace Jake Peavy, but also of an offense that was prepared for whatever was thrown at it.
Peavy came out in Game 1 throwing strikes, and the Cardinals responded by swinging aggressively early in the count. Williams, meanwhile, pitched more on the edges and outside the strike zone. As a result, St. Louis hitters let him fall into deep counts before pouncing on hittable pitches once they got ahead.
"Our preparation is pretty intense," Eckstein said. "The one thing the days off did was give us a chance to watch film the day prior, so you went to bed knowing exactly what the guy was throwing. Then [it was] coming to the park the next day, re-watching, talking about it, seeing the game plan against them and what they really like to do and focusing on it."
Saturday's damage came even more quickly than in the first two games, as the Redbirds broke it open and chased Williams in the second. After Yadier Molina's leadoff single, Morris beat out a potential inning-ending double-play ball on a sacrifice bunt attempt. That new life proved critical, as the next five Cardinals batters reached base.
Eckstein took advantage immediately, poking a two-run homer just over the left-field wall for a 3-0 lead. That gave him four RBIs over the past two games. He went 5-for-13 in the series, and was a likely runner-up to Sanders for a mythical NLDS MVP award.
"Each pitcher, you kind of change your approach," said Eckstein. "Woody is a very crafty pitcher. He's going to want you to get yourself out. And we did a good job tonight of laying off pitches that were borderline and getting pitches over the plate."
Edmonds followed Eckstein's dinger with a double down the right-field line. The Padres walked Pujols intentionally to bring up Walker, but Williams hit Walker on the thigh with a pitch. That loaded the bases for Sanders, who smacked a two-run double to left that ended Williams' night. Molina poked a two-run single in the fifth for still more breathing room.
Morris, meanwhile, held San Diego hitless through 4 1/3 innings before the Padres got their home crowd into the game with a fifth-inning rally. Joe Randa's double broke up the no-no, and Eric Young's pinch-hit single got the home team on the board. Mark Loretta singled home Young to make it 7-2. Morris struck out Ryan Klesko with two on to end the inning and prevent the game from getting uncomfortably close.
Morris lasted through the sixth before handing the ball over to the Cardinals bullpen, completing a series in which St. Louis starters allowed three runs in 18 2/3 total innings. After manager Tony La Russa showed faith in Morris by giving him the ball over Jeff Suppan and Jason Marquis, Morris justified it with his first playoff win since the 2002 Division Series. Over his last six postseason starts, the dean of the Cardinals had gone 0-4 with a 6.03 ERA.
"You don't want to let [La Russa] down," Morris said. "Marquis, Suppan, those guys deserved the ball just as well, and I appreciate it from Tony. We've been together a long time, and you want to step it up when he does something like that."
The Cardinals have won five of their six Division Series since the inception of the format in 1995, going 17-4 in Division Series games with four sweeps. They are 6-0 in two postseason series against San Diego, having swept the Padres in 1996.
St. Louis will open the NLCS on Wednesday at home against either Houston or Atlanta, in a rematch of either 2004's classic series or the pennant battles of 1982 and '96. The Astros lead the Braves, 2-1, in a best-of-five series with Game 4 set for Houston on Sunday.