Cardinals push Padres aside, move on to NLCS

SAN DIEGO -- The St. Louis Cardinals are such a professionally stoic bunch, even Fredbird the mascot conducts himself with a certain amount of decorum. So when the media questions before Game 3 of the National League Division Series strayed from concrete to abstract, the Cardinals shifted ever-so-slightly in their seats.

These guys don't do hypotheticals.

Had the St. Louis players given any thought to how they might celebrate a victory over San Diego? No, said second baseman Mark Grudzielanek, because they realized that even the slightest lapse in intensity might allow the Padres to climb back into the series.

Manager Tony La Russa, who might be willing to share his favorite color or breakfast cereal if sufficiently pressed, responded with three different brands of "no comment" when asked if he'd chosen a Game 4 starter. Why make that announcement, La Russa said, when the objective is to make sure a fourth game never takes place?

With the exception of the terminally off-center Larry Walker, the Cardinals take their cue from La Russa, and you never know if they'll start clenching their teeth too tight as October progresses. They're the anti-White Sox. But businesslike and driven certainly worked during the regular season, when they established themselves as the class of the National League with 100 wins and an 11-game cushion over second-place Houston.

The first week of October has done nothing to diminish their stature as World Series front-runners. St. Louis vs. San Diego, the first-round series that everyone projected as a joyride, is over more quickly than a David Eckstein home run trot.

After the Cardinals dispatched the Padres 7-4 for a three-game series sweep Saturday, you had to wonder: Given the spiraling cost of airline fuel, was the final West Coast leg really necessary? And considering that the Cardinals have only taken one step in a three-step program, how would they celebrate?

With a split personality, it turns out. On the field, it was your basic smiles, high-fives, and when's the next workout? Then the Cardinals entered the clubhouse and took part in a 20-minute, cork-popping, champagne and beer-spraying frenzy.

They chanted "MVP" in honor of Albert Pujols and "Reg-gie, Reg-gie" in tribute to Reggie Sanders. And when they ran out of champagne, they soaked each other with Budweiser.

"We have a ton of respect for the Padres, and we're not out there to jump around and make fools of ourselves," said Matt Morris, the winning pitcher in the clincher. "We came in here and tried to celebrate in the privacy of the clubhouse, knowing we have some unfinished business. But in the end, it's all about popping champagne."

The Division Series showed that the Cardinals are much more than a one-man gang. While Pujols hit .556 (5-for-9) in the series, he was just a cog in the machinery. Sanders, who entered this series with 13 RBI in 191 career postseason at-bats, drove in 10 runs in 12 at-bats, and the Cardinals took big early leads in all three games of the series. They outscored the Padres 21-11 despite being outhit .302 to .284.

With a huge performance against the Padres, Sanders obliterated his reputation as an October flameout.

"I don't think he had a meaningless RBI," La Russa said. "He really lit it up for us. He was the guy who provided the margin where it wasn't quite as scary."

The finale ended at 2:17 a.m. Eastern time, where only Cardinal maniacs and insomniacs were around to see St. Louis celebrate. But then, oddball starting times were a predominant theme in this series. The opener took place at noon St. Louis time, and the Cardinals won Game 2 in a mid-afternoon blend of light and shadow that made life extremely challenging for the hitters.

Both managers exercised a bit of sentimentality in their Game 3 starter choices. La Russa picked Morris, the Cardinal with the most seniority, even though Jason Marquis and Jeff Suppan pitched better down the stretch. And San Diego manager Bruce Bochy subjected himself to some second-guessing by going with Woody Williams over Adam Eaton, who was San Diego's clear No. 2 behind Jake Peavy before a finger injury did a number on his season.

Morris proved it was a wise call by throwing 4 1/3 no-hit innings before giving up a double to Joe Randa. "I was excited to pitch and anxious to pitch," Morris said. "You spend all day waiting for the game to start, and it seems like it will never get here. Then when it does, it just blows by you."

The Cardinals, who outslugged San Diego in the series opener and played small ball in Game 2, reverted to power-ball in the clincher. Pujols hit the big Petco Park gaps twice for doubles, and Eckstein, the Cardinals' emotional engine, belted a two-run homer to extend the lead to 3-0. It was 7-0 before the St. Louis bullpen once again made things interesting.

The Cardinals can use the three days' rest before taking on the Houston-Atlanta winner Wednesday. The St. Louis bullpen was shaky against San Diego and showed signs of being vulnerable against a stronger opponent. And while Mark Mulder is recovering nicely from that Randa line drive off his left arm Thursday, he's still a bit sore at the moment.

The quick first round was also good news for Jim Edmonds, who has a sprained shoulder and crashed into yet another fence Saturday night, and Walker, who went hitless in nine at-bats in the series and took a scary flip over the wall down the right-field line in pursuit of a Mark Loretta pop fly in the fifth inning.

The final fringe benefit to the sweep: Cy Young Award candidate Chris Carpenter, who is closing in on 250 innings for the season, was spared the burden of two starts against the Padres.

When the postgame clubhouse celebration was over and the Cardinals were both sprayed out and screamed out, Sanders stood in a corner and reflected thoughtfully on the first week of October. He was asked if the Cardinals seem better equipped to take that final step than last year, when they lost four-and-out to Boston in the World Series.

"Who knows?" Sanders said. "For us it's all about staying fundamentally sound. Pitching. Defense. Getting timely hitting. We can't get too far ahead of ourselves and say, 'Oh yeah, we're supposed to get all the way to the World Series.'"

But the Cardinals can think it, and they can certainly play like it. One step down for St. Louis. Two to go.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.