ST. LOUIS (AP)—Standing on a folding chair in a raucous clubhouse, Albert Pujols sprayed champagne in every direction. Teammates got soaked—even owners — no one was immune.
The tension from Chris Carpenter’s shaky beginning, the angst of the St. Louis Cardinals’ late-season swoon, all had evaporated. They’re going to the NL championship series for the third straight season.
“From Day 1, I kept saying this team’s got what it takes to get to the World Series,” Scott Spiezio said. “We’re a step closer.”
Carpenter recovered from a bad first inning to gain his second victory of the series, Juan Encarnacion hit a tiebreaking triple and the Cardinals beat the San Diego Padres 6-2 Sunday night to win their best-of-five first-round NL playoff 3-1.
St. Louis nearly wasted a seven-game lead in the final two weeks of the regular season but rebounded against the Padres, a team the Cardinals swept in the first round in 2005.
Escaping trouble in each of the last two innings, the Cardinals sealed the win when Adam Wainwright got Dave Roberts on a groundout with two on. Pujols stepped on the first-base bag for the final out to set off the first postseason celebration at the new Busch Stadium, which opened this year.
“I didn’t blame anybody who didn’t think we had a very good shot,” said Cardinals manager Tony La Russa, who improved to 20-5 in the division series. “I’m so pleased because it’s been such a rough year. We’ve popped champagne twice, and the goal is to pop it four times.”
Back in the NLCS for the third straight year, the Cardinals open the next round Wednesday night at the New York Mets, who won the season series from St. Louis 4-2.
“They’ve got a great club,” Carpenter said. “We’re going to celebrate tonight and worry about them tomorrow.”
While the Cardinals won the NL pennant in 2004 before getting swept by Boston, the Cardinals lost last year’s NL championship to Houston in six games.
San Diego manager Bruce Bochy, whose team won the division for the second straight year, dropped to 1-9 in the postseason against the Cardinals, who also swept the Padres in the opening round in 1996. San Diego was 2-for-32 (.063) with runners in scoring position in the series.
“This was a pretty good year,” Bochy said. “Sure, it’s disappointing the way it ended. We didn’t score a lot of runs in the series, and that was the difference.”
Carpenter, who won Tuesday’s opener 5-1, fell behind 2-0 in the first inning when he walked Russell Branyan with the bases loaded and Mike Cameron followed two pitches later with an RBI grounder.
“I think he was a little bit too pumped up in the first inning,” Pujols said.
But that was all the NL West champions would get off Carpenter. He got Josh Barfield to hit into an inning-ending forceout.
“We did have a good chance there to break the game open,” Bochy said. “We just didn’t deliver.”
Carpenter followed with six innings of shutout, five-hit ball, leaving him at 2-0 with a 2.02 ERA in the series and 4-0 with a 2.10 ERA in five postseason starts.
La Russa was especially pleased that Carpenter prevented San Diego from building a big lead in the first.
“That was classic Chris, because at the end of the inning they had two runs and not four or five,” La Russa said. “Then he started pounding the strike zone.”
Because La Russa pitched him Sunday instead of saving him for a possible fifth game, he likely won’t be available until the third game of the NLCS.
He quickly gave back the lead. Ronnie Belliard, 6-for-13 in the series, tied it in the bottom half of the first with a two-run, two-out single. The score stayed tied until the four-run sixth.
Pujols started off the bottom half with a five-pitch walk and, one out later, Encarnacion drove a hanging breaking ball deep to right as Pujols lumbered around the bases for a 3-2 lead.
“I left a curveball up,” Williams said. “I guess he was looking to go the other way.”
Cla Meredith relieved and hit Belliard with a pitch, and Spiezio singled up the middle on a 1-2 pitch to score Encarnacion. Yadier Molina’s sharp single to right loaded the bases, and Carpenter hit a grounder to Branyan. The third baseman’s throw was wide to the first-base side and pulled catcher Josh Bard off the plate as Belliard slid home for a three-run lead.
“It was just a tough play,” Branyan said. “I went hard to my left to get to the ball, and I thought I had to rush the throw home, and my momentum was carrying me toward first, and I pulled the ball—I pulled it off line.”
On the very next pitch, David Eckstein bunted up the first-base line, sending Spiezio home on the squeeze.
San Diego, in the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time, put runners at the corners with no outs in the eighth on singles by Brian Giles and Adrian Gonzalez. Tyler Johnson relieved and struck out Bard.
Mike Piazza, who didn’t start after banging up his shoulder in San Diego’s 3-1 Game 3 win, then pinch hit. Josh Kinney came in to pitch and got Piazza to bounce into an inning-ending 6-4-3 double play.
The St. Louis bullpen, featuring three rookies, threw 13 1-3 scoreless innings in the series.
“We didn’t know much about these guys,” Roberts said. “They’ve got great stuff. To their credit, they made pitches when they had to.”
Nikko Smith, son of Cardinals Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith and a former “American Idol” finalist, sang the national anthem. … Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst, a former Cardinals manager, threw out the ceremonial first pitch.