SAN DIEGO -- The St. Louis Cardinals surrounded Reggie Sanders in the clubhouse and chanted "MVP! MVP! MVP!"
They drenched him in so much champagne that he sprinted into the trainer's room for refuge, eventually re-emerging with a towel around his head.
Baseball's best team in the regular season, the Cardinals brushed aside San Diego just as almost everybody thought they would, winning 7-4 Saturday night for a three-game sweep of their first-round playoff series.
"Well, it never gets old," Sanders said between dousings. "It was fun. I'm not quite there yet with what's going on. When they say 'MVP,' it's numbing. It's not like it's over yet."
The Cardinals made it to the World Series last year before flopping in a four-game sweep by the Boston Red Sox. St. Louis advances to the NL Championship Series for the fourth time in six years, and will have home-field advantage against the winner of the Houston-Atlanta series. The Astros lead 2-1 -- they lost to St. Louis in seven games in last year's NLCS.
There is no MVP award for the first round -- but if there was, Sanders certainly would have won.
He drove in two more runs to set an NL Division Series record with 10, and little David Eckstein hit his first career postseason homer as the Cardinals chased former teammate Woody Williams before he could get out of the second inning.
Right-hander Matt Morris, who's been with the Cardinals since 1997 and is their longest-tenured player, recovered from his late-season struggles to hold the Padres hitless for 4 1/3 innings. With two on in the bottom of the ninth, Jason Isringhausen struck out Brian Giles and retired Ryan Klesko on a comebacker to earn his 10th career postseason save.
Sanders and Eckstein are the only Cardinals players with World Series rings. Eckstein won his with the Angels in 2002, and Sanders the previous season with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The Cardinals were relatively subdued while celebrating on the field after the final out, but they let loose once they reached the cases of champagne in the clubhouse.
"It's nice," Jim Edmonds said. "We're trying to really be careful and not get it out of control. We're working toward the goal of winning the World Series. This is a good step."
"That's our mission," second baseman Mark Grudzielanek said. "We've got to get back there and try to win the thing. That's what it's all about."
And with the way Sanders drove in runs, they've got a good chance.
"He was phenomenal. You can't say enough about the guy," Grudzielanek said.
"He was big in each game," St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said. "I don't think he had a meaningless RBI. He really lit it up for us. He was the guy that provided the margin where it wasn't quite as scary.
"He fits in," La Russa added. "One of the things we believe about our club is we have a bunch of guys who are prime-timers, who are not afraid to take big at-bats."
San Diego was as mediocre in this series as it was in winning the woeful NL West. The Padres never led, and their starting pitchers lasted only 10 innings, with a 13.50 ERA. San Diego (82-80) entered the playoffs with the worst winning percentage of a division champion (.506) in a non-strike season. Including this series, they finished one game under .500.
"When those guys have the lead, they smell blood," Padres leadoff hitter Dave Roberts said. "No one expected anything from us."
Other than a ninth-inning rally by the Padres that fell short in Game 1, this series was like a bully kicking sand in the face of a 98-pound weakling at the beach. Sanders, who played for the Padres in 1999, did the most damage.
In Game 1, he hit a grand slam off ace Jake Peavy and finished with an NL Division Series-record six RBI, then drove in two more runs in Game 2.
Saturday night, Sanders stepped in against Williams with the bases loaded and two outs in the second, and lined a 1-1 pitch into left field for a 5-0 lead.
"Sanders killed us," Padres manager Bruce Bochy said. "He had a big series."
Four batters earlier, Williams left an 85 mph pitch over the middle of the plate and Eckstein -- the 5-foot-7, 165-pound shortstop -- drove it over the left-field fence for a two-run homer. It was Eckstein's 24th career postseason game. He had three hits and a walk.
Williams made four postseason starts for St. Louis last year, including Game 1 of the World Series, when he allowed seven runs and eight hits over 2 1/3 innings for a no-decision in an 11-9 loss.
Williams was shaky from the start of San Diego's first home postseason game since 1998. Eckstein singled to shallow left-center on the second pitch and scored on Albert Pujols' double to right-center with one out.
The Cardinals batted around in the second. Morris was aboard for Eckstein's homer, then Williams loaded the bases by allowing a double to Jim Edmonds, intentionally walking Pujols and hitting Larry Walker with a pitch on the right knee. Sanders' double chased the 39-year-old right-hander.
"When he's seeing everything good, there's not a whole lot you can do about it," Williams said.
Williams allowed five runs and six hits in 1 2/3 innings, struck out two and walked two.
Morris held San Diego to two runs and five hits in six innings, struck out four and walked three. He began the year 10-1 but ended the regular season with a career-high five-game losing streak, spanning seven starts.
St. Louis took a 7-0 lead on Yadier Molina's two-run single in the fifth. All-Star closer Trevor Hoffman made his first appearance of the series for the Padres in the ninth, but San Diego trailed by three runs.
- This was the first playoff game in Petco Park's two-year history, and the first postseason game in San Diego since Game 4 of the 1998 World Series, when the New York Yankees completed a sweep.
- San Diego has lost seven straight postseason games.
- The Padres also were swept by the Cardinals in the 1996 division series.