- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 13, 2005

ST. LOUIS — There’s a reason St. Louis is so widely regarded as a great baseball town, perhaps the greatest in the land.

It’s not just the rabid fan support and all the history of this storied franchise. It’s all the little things the Cardinals and their fans do right.

When the home team executes a perfect squeeze bunt, the crowd at Busch Stadium goes nuts. When they make a fundamentally sound play in the field, the fans roar with approval. When the 37-year-old left fielder clubs yet another big home run, they scream until he acknowledges their curtain call.

And when the Cardinals put it all together like they did in last night’s 5-3 victory over the Houston Astros in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series, the 52,332 die-hards dressed in red from head to toe stand and salute their beloved birds with everything they’ve got.

“That was such a typical game that we played all year long,” manager Tony La Russa said. “I mean, that’s why we are 100-62. It’s really an enjoyable club to be around because of the way … on the field they pay attention to everything.”

There’s a special bond between St. Louis’ ballclub and its fans, who have won more World Series titles (nine) than anyone other than the New York Yankees yet none since 1982. If the Cardinals keep playing the way they have through their first four postseason games, all wins, that elusive championship banner may soon be within reach.

You’d be hard-pressed to bet against St. Louis right now. What’s not to like? This NLCS has been touted as an even-matched, pick-‘em showdown between two talented clubs. That may yet prove true, but on this night there was no question who the better team was.

“When it happens, it just looks so good,” second baseman Mark Grudzielanek said. “And we looked real good doing it tonight.”

Behind Reggie Sanders’ first-inning home run, Chris Carpenter’s eight stellar innings (along with his picture-perfect squeeze in the second) and any number of fundamentally executed plays, the Cardinals jumped out to a 5-0 lead and then held on during Houston’s last-ditch rally.

“It’s exciting, there’s no question about it,” said Carpenter, who gave up two runs and five hits. “To be able to go out and be on this stage and compete with the best players and have a chance for the ultimate goal — to win the World Series — you know, it’s been fun and real exciting.”

Carpenter outdueled Houston’s Andy Pettitte, who surrendered five runs in six innings and suffered his first loss since Aug. 16, and in the process knocked off the first of the Astros’ three aces. Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens still await, but manager Phil Garner will need those two to come up big if he wants his club to keep this thing interesting.

“It’s one ballgame,” Garner said. “This is a best-out-of-seven. Last year, we took it to the limit [after losing Game 1]. … This club bounces back, and we’ll bounce back.”

For all the Cy Young Award hype surrounding Carpenter, Clemens and Dontrelle Willis, perhaps no one in the NL pitched better over the second half of the season than Pettitte. The left-hander went 11-2 with a 1.69 ERA after the All-Star break, then went out and won Game 1 of the division series against the Atlanta Braves.

But the man with more career postseason wins (14) than anyone not named John Smoltz looked out of sorts from the start last night. Turns out he was struck in the right knee earlier in the day during batting practice and was still feeling the effects when he took the mound.

“It clearly swelled up on him,” Garner said. “I think it was probably a little factor in the game. But he was trying to pitch through it, and I thought he did a good job.”

Pettitte’s best wasn’t good enough. With two outs and a runner on first in the first, he served up a 445-foot blast to Sanders. It was a titanic two-run homer, worthy of the stage on which it was hit.

In four postseason games, the 37-year-old Sanders has 12 RBI. He has driven in at least one run in each of the Cardinals’ last 10 games, dating to the regular season.

“Hey, it’s not that easy,” he said. “I tell you, it’s not that easy at all. As a hitter, all we try to do is get a pitch that we can handle and lay off the other stuff.”

Sanders has handled plenty of stuff lately, so when he was drawn back out of the dugout last night for his first-inning curtain call, the gesture was plenty merited. He doffed his cap, the crowd chanted “Reg-gie! Reg-gie!” and the only thing missing was the Yankee Stadium scoreboard (circa 1977) flashing those syllables for another October hero with the same first name.

The roar returned in the bottom of the second, when Carpenter’s perfectly placed, perfectly timed suicide squeeze brought Grudzielanek home with the Cardinals’ third run. It was executed to perfection, called by La Russa with the count 2-0 and just moments after Garner pitched out, but what else is new? St. Louis has this fundamental thing down to a science.

“Late in the game, it shows,” third baseman Abraham Nunez said.

Did it ever. Without those early fundamentals, the Cardinals might not have carried a comfortable five-run lead into the late innings. Thus, neither Chris Burke’s two-run homer off Carpenter in the seventh nor Houston’s unearned run off closer Jason Isringhausen in the ninth proved deadly.

Rather, Isringhausen got pinch-hitter Jose Vizcaino (the potential tying run) to ground out to end the game and send the Cardinals and their fans one step closer to another World Series.

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