Cardinals 8, Padres 5
Three straight wayward pitches sailed from the right hand of Jake Peavy, which was a significant enough problem, given that the bases were already loaded. Reggie Sanders, the St. Louis Cardinals' 37-year-old outfielder with a broken right leg only recently healed, tried to calm himself, because the sign had come in from the bench: If you like it, swing away.
"My first at-bat, my emotions were all over the place," Sanders said. "So you really sit back and think about what was going on. . . . You learn over the course that it's all about how you can house those emotions."
So with that, Sanders exhaled, and it mattered not that the San Diego Padres' catcher, Ramon Hernandez, warned Peavy that this might be a situation, even with the count 3-0, that Sanders would swing. Too late. Peavy threw a fastball right in the heart of the plate and, as Padres Manager Bruce Bochy said, "He got a hold of it," launching it into the left field seats, the grand slam that spurred the Cardinals to a convincing 8-5 victory in Game 1 of their National League Division Series on Tuesday afternoon at steamy Busch Stadium.
Couple that blast with Sanders's two-run single in the third -- all of which helped heavily favored St. Louis build an 8-0 lead that it nearly frittered away -- and the beat-up, worn-down wonder finished with six RBI, a record for an NL divisional series, not to mention a Cardinals' postseason mark. Jim Edmonds added three hits, including a solo homer in the first, and scored three runs, and Cy Young Award hopeful Chris Carpenter put behind a miserable September, one in which he posted a 9.14 ERA over his final four starts, to throw six innings of three-hit, scoreless baseball before leaving with cramps in his hands.
"I think Carp really needed that," right fielder Larry Walker said.
And Sanders really needed his performance, too. On July 15, he charged a line drive hit by Houston's Craig Biggio. Edmonds, the Cardinals' graceful center fielder, charged it, too. Sanders came up with the catch, but the two collided. Three days later, Sanders learned he had a hairline fracture of his right fibula. He went on the disabled list. And when he came off on Sept. 12, he wasn't the same.
"He knew he had to go back out there," hitting coach Hal McRae said. "But he couldn't go back out there and swing at everything. He had to be patient."
It took time. His last RBI, before he was injured, came on July 8. His next, after he returned, came on Sept. 26. That's more than two months to get that feeling he had, times six, on Tuesday. He has been in the big leagues for 15 years. But it doesn't mean confidence can't be shaken. Two months off can muddle the timing, the head, the entire makeup of a player.
"Hal and I really just sat back and started thinking about things, and the way that I need to go about seeing pitches and getting in the right frame of mind," Sanders said. "I've just been working hard every day to get where I needed to be."
The Cardinals nearly didn't get where they needed to be Tuesday. With Carpenter gone, the Padres managed a run in the seventh, another in the eighth. Down 8-2 entering the ninth, two of the first three men reached against reliever Cal Eldred. So St. Louis Manager Tony La Russa, with a six-run lead, turned to his closer, Jason Isringhausen.
"It's not really normal," Isringhausen said of entering in such a situation. "But it's the playoffs."
And after Isringhausen recorded one out, he followed by allowing a single to Ryan Klesko, then another to Mark Loretta, then another to Brian Giles. Three runs scored, and boos rained from the Busch Stadium crowd when, moments earlier, there had only been reason to cheer. The Padres were within 8-5, and when Robert Fick followed with a single that loaded the bases -- putting the tying run on base -- Sanders's heroics looked as if they might not be enough.
"They're on Pacific Coast time," Walker said of the Padres. "It took them awhile to wake up."
As it did for Isringhausen. But with the crowd still on its feet, he got Hernandez to chase a fastball that was well off the plate, and the Cardinals had their win.
Afterward, Sanders stood in front of his locker, his face full of creases, yet looking relieved. The injury, he said, has long since stopped bothering him. Now, neither is his mind.
"It's not emotional anymore," Sanders said. "It's not a head game anymore, because I've been able to come back for two or three weeks. Now, I'm in the groove where I need to be."