ST. LOUIS -- Remember this chant from postseasons long ago?
"Reggie! Reggie! Reggie!"
There's a new Mr. October in the baseball playoffs, and that first name sure sounds familiar.
Reggie Sanders kept up his torrid postseason with a two-run homer and Chris Carpenter grounded Houston's offense, leading the St. Louis Cardinals past the Astros 5-3 in Game 1 of the NL Championship Series Wednesday night.
"Everything is about timing," Sanders said. "I'm just out there doing my thing."
The Cardinals extended the pattern of home-field dominance that held throughout last year's NLCS against the Astros. The home team won every game, giving St. Louis a seven-game victory and a trip to the World Series.
In the league's first championship rematch since 1992, the Cardinals again got the upper hand on their division rival, a team they finished 11 games ahead of in the NL Central. They have to get by the Astros again for a chance at World Series redemption after their four-game sweep by the Boston Red Sox in 2004.
The wild-card Astros got off to a poor start before the series even began. While running the bases in batting practice, starting pitcher Andy Pettitte was struck on the inside of the right knee with a sharp liner.
The Astros insisted the left-hander was fine, but he sure didn't look like a pitcher who was 17-9 with the NL's second-lowest ERA (2.39) during the regular season. Afterward, Houston came clean.
"It swelled up on him and that was probably a little factor in the game," manager Phil Garner said. "He was trying to pitch through it."
Pettitte finished batting practice, then ducked into the clubhouse for treatment.
"It was a freak accident," he said. "I saw it the whole time. I tried to jump over it, but it hit my knee."
Pettitte exceeded his regular-season ERA in the first two innings. Sanders hit his mammoth shot in the first, and St. Louis made it 3-0 in the second on Carpenter's squeeze bunt, a familiar offensive weapon for the small-ball Cardinals.
Sanders, a flop in five previous postseasons, has resembled Reggie Jackson this time around. The 37-year-old outfielder had a homer and 10 RBI in a three-game sweep of the San Diego Padres in the opening round, including a division series-record six RBI in the opener.
He didn't take long to get going in the NLCS. With two outs and a runner at first, he fell behind 1-2 but jumped on the next pitch, a fastball left over the plate. Sanders sent a 445-foot drive that just missed the scoreboard hanging above the auxiliary press box. Left fielder Lance Berkman barely moved.
As Sanders trotted out to play left field in the top of the second, the fans who had just gotten an up-close look at the homer serenaded him with chants of "Reggie! Reggie! Reggie!"
For good measure, Sanders also made a leaping catch against the wall on Mike Lamb to end the sixth. Once again, the crowd erupted in chants of "Reggie! Reggie! Reggie!"
Before this year, Sanders' postseason resume was dismal: 36-for-191 for a .188 average, with five homers and 13 RBI.
"This is such a big magnifying glass," said Sanders, who has bounced around with seven teams in the last eight years. "Everything is heightened when you come through in key situations."
Carpenter was eager to get on the mound after last year's NLCS, when he couldn't pitch because of a nerve problem in his right biceps. A 21-game winner during the regular season, he escaped a couple of early jams and then took advantage of a comfortable lead when the Cardinals added two more runs in the fifth on RBI singles by David Eckstein and Albert Pujols.
Carpenter had a shutout through 6 2/3 innings, but it was broken up by Chris Burke's pinch-hit, two-run homer. Still, the Cardinals starter allowed just five hits and looked every bit like the ace of his team's strong rotation.
Sixteen of his outs were recorded on ground balls, the Astros continually pounding his sinker and cut fastball into the dirt.
"I was in command of it all night," Carpenter said.
A Game 1 victory is usually a good omen in the NLCS. Twelve straight times, the winner of the opener has gone on to the World Series. The last team that didn't follow that path: the 1991 Atlanta Braves.
"Why play 'em?" Garner quipped. "Hey, it's one loss in a best out of seven."
The Astros had chances to get back in the game.
They loaded the bases with one out in the third on Ausmus' single and two walks, bringing up the dangerous Berkman. He hit a hard grounder that was scooped up by second baseman Mark Grudzielanek. He whirled and threw to Eckstein, who stretched out to get the throw at second. Pujols scooped out a bouncing relay throw at first to complete the double play.
The following inning, Morgan Ensberg led off with a ground-rule double and moved over to third on a groundout. Adam Everett hit a chopper down the third-base line that was fielded by Abraham Nunez, who turned his body like he was going to take the sure out at first. Instead, he came home with the throw, and Yadier Molina put the tag on Ensberg.
The Astros finally got to Carpenter in the seventh. Burke homered in his second straight at-bat, albeit three days apart. His two-run drive followed an 18th-inning homer Sunday that ended the longest game in postseason history and gave Houston an opening-round victory over Atlanta.
But Burke's homer was about the only highlight for the Astros, who mimicked their regular season by struggling to score runs and didn't get the sort of performance they're used to from a member of the "Big Three."
Pettitte, Oswalt and Game 3 starter Roger Clemens held three of the top seven spots on the league's ERA list.
Struggling through six innings, Pettitte gave up eight hits and his most runs since he was tagged for six by Baltimore on June 14. He was perhaps baseball's hottest pitcher over the final three months of the season, going 13-2 with a 1.69 ERA.
Like Carpenter, Pettitte also missed last year's NLCS while recovering from elbow surgery. He was supposedly healthy this time around, winning Game 1 of the division series against the Braves and coming into the rematch against the Cardinals looking for his 15th playoff victory and a tie with Atlanta's John Smoltz as the winningest postseason pitcher in baseball history.
But he couldn't make it through batting practice unscathed.
"It's unbelievable," Pettitte said. "I was just terrible."
- Walker was 0-for-10 in the postseason until a broken-bat single in the fourth.
- The Cardinals have outscored their opponents 24-2 in the first six innings of four postseason games.