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Cards earn third straight trip to NLCS

Cards earn third straight trip to NLCS

ST. LOUIS -- Chris Carpenter executed a brilliant turnaround from a rocky first inning to smooth sailing over the next six on Sunday night. But to his teammates, how he handled that shaky start was just as impressive.

The Cardinals ace minimized the damage in a potentially disastrous first inning, then locked down, allowing his teammates to roar back for a 6-2 win over the Padres at Busch Stadium. Carpenter's fourth career postseason victory in as many decisions gave St. Louis a 3-1 series win in the National League Division Series.

The Cards fell behind, 2-0, in the first inning as Carpenter labored through 35 pitches to get three outs. But a two-run bottom of the first, followed by a four-run sixth, sent St. Louis to its fifth National League Championship Series in seven years and third straight. The series, a rematch of the 2000 pennant battle with the Mets, will get under way on Wednesday at Shea Stadium in New York.

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"I came out in the first and I think I was trying to do a little too much," said Carpenter, who has never started a postseason game that his team went on to lose. "I wasn't attacking the strike zone, wasn't getting strike one, trying to make perfect pitches on the corners, and that's not my game.

"Fortunately I was able to get out of it with two runs, and we popped two runs in the bottom there to make it a whole new game. And in the second inning, I just regrouped and went out and started back in the strike zone. I was going to be aggressive and make them swing the bats."

Juan Encarnacion's tiebreaking RBI triple in the sixth uncorked a furious rally against former Cardinal Woody Williams and reliever Cla Meredith. Scott Spiezio, playing in place of ailing Scott Rolen, delivered an RBI single to make it 4-2. After Yadier Molina's single loaded the bases, Carpenter reached on a fielder's choice, with Ronnie Belliard scoring on an error on the play. David Eckstein's squeeze bunt made it 6-2, and a crowd of 46,476 began celebrating.

Carpenter lasted seven-plus innings, finally chased by a pair of singles to open the eighth. He won for the second time in this series. In Carpenter's five career postseason starts, the Cardinals are 5-0.

In the first inning, it did not appear as though Carpenter would last long enough even to be eligible for the win. After a pair of dink singles, he issued a walk to load the bases and another one to give the Padres the lead. Mike Cameron drove in a run on a force-play grounder, making it 2-0. Carpenter issued yet another walk before Josh Barfield grounded into another forceout to end the inning. One big hit could have broken the inning open, but the big hit never came.

"To come out of that first inning like he did, he did some good damage control just that inning," said Cardinals reliever Adam Wainwright, who got the 27th out of all three Cardinals wins in the series. "He only gave up two runs there. He's proven what a big-game pitcher he is and what an amazing pitcher he is. Those next five or six innings, he was just lights out."

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Handed the lead, Williams couldn't get the lockdown, allowing the Cards back in the game in the bottom of the first. A single, a hit batter and a walk brought Belliard to the plate with two outs, and the second baseman delivered -- as he did all series. Belliard lined a single to center to allow two runs to score, but was thrown out trying to take second. The runs gave the St. Louis ace a fresh game and changed the entire complexion of the contest.

"We went out there, down, 2-0, in the first and we tied it up," said Belliard. "After that, Carpenter took the mound and said, 'Hey, I'm going to do my thing.' And he did. He's unbelievable."

The Redbirds played still more exceptional defense behind, and in front of, Carpenter. In addition to two hits, catcher Molina kept up his sharp fielding when he threw out speedy Dave Roberts on a groundout in the second. Molina also caught Roberts trying to steal. Belliard made an outstanding play on a Josh Bard grounder, ranging far to his left in the third inning.

After the early runs, what threatened to become a slugfest actually turned into a pitchers' duel for several innings. Both veteran righties grew more efficient and effective, and the game cruised through the fifth without another run.

"[The rough start] didn't have anything to do with his stuff," pitching coach Dave Duncan said of Carpenter. "He made some really good pitches on Roberts to strike him out. He made a good pitch to [Brian] Giles and it was a little ground ball up the middle. Then he jammed [Adrian] Gonzalez for a bloop hit. I think early there, knowing the significance of the game, I think Carp probably tried to do a little bit more than he really needed to do. The second inning he was fine, and from there on."

After the Cards took the lead, Carpenter lasted through the seventh without incident. He was touched for a pair of base hits to open the eighth, handing the ball over to the Cardinals bullpen -- which was again beyond reproach. Lefty Tyler Johnson struck out Bard with two on, and fellow rookie Josh Kinney got future Hall of Famer Mike Piazza to hit into a double play to end the threat. Wainwright finished it off. Cardinals relievers threw 13 1/3 shutout innings in the series.

St. Louis has won six of its seven trips to the Division Series, winning 20 of 25 games, and will play for the National League pennant for the sixth time in 11 years under manager Tony La Russa. The Cards have gone 1-4 in NLCS trips under La Russa, winning in 2004 against Houston. New York took the 2000 series, four games to one.

Matthew Leach 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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