An item in the Oct. 7 Sports section indicated that David Eckstein of the St. Louis Cardinals' executed a squeeze play in the third inning of a game against the San Diego Padres. It was the fourth inning. (Published 10/14/2005)

Cardinals 6, Padres 2

It turns out there is a reason outsiders questioned the San Diego Padres' fitness for postseason play. There is, too, a reason the Padres needed a victory, on the final day of the regular season, to ensure themselves of a winning record. Come to think of it, there is a reason that their series with the St. Louis Cardinals is an afterthought nationally, lost in the glare of Sox vs. Sox, Angels vs. Yankees, Clemens vs. Smoltz.

The reason unveiled itself in Busch Stadium's long shadows Thursday afternoon. The San Diego Padres, quite simply, are not very good. And after a 6-2 loss to the Cardinals in Game 2 of their National League Division Series, they will have to play a radically different brand of baseball -- in the field, on the mound, at the plate -- to avoid a three-game sweep by the powerful Cards when the series resumes Saturday in San Diego.

But what evidence is there, after Thursday's events, that the Padres could or would make that happen? The Cardinals have yet to trail in the series, which they lead 2-0, and the only sounds emanating from an otherwise somber visitors' clubhouse Thursday evening were of spikes being cleaned and showers running hot, cleansing the Padres of these two losses.

"We can't complain and whine about where we're at," Padres third baseman Joe Randa said. "We've got to go forward."

Thursday, when the Padres tried to go forward, they tripped on themselves. Cardinals left-hander Mark Mulder surely had something to do with the outcome, for he was effective enough over his 62/3 innings, allowing one run. And Mulder certainly benefited from the taut St. Louis defense, which turned four double plays, and now has seven in the first two games of the series. David Eckstein, the tiny shortstop who gets lost among the behemoths around him, showed San Diego how to execute in the playoffs, driving in a pair of runs on a fielder's choice and a squeeze bunt, and 37-year-old outfielder Reggie Sanders drove in two more on a seventh-inning double, giving him eight RBI in the two games of the series.

Even Albert Pujols, St. Louis's massive and prodigious slugger, hit behind a runner on a perfectly executed hit-and-run that set up Sanders's double.

"What we're trying to do," Sanders said, "is be as fine-tuned and honed-in on the small things as we can possibly be."

The Padres, ostensibly, are making the same attempt, but with little success. Indeed, they hit several balls hard against Mulder and three relievers, but the Cardinals made each and every play. "You can't guide the ball through," Randa said.

Still, in many ways, they brought this loss upon themselves. Take the second inning, when San Diego starter Pedro Astacio walked the first batter he faced, Abraham Nunez. It says something about the Padres' place in the game that Astacio, released by the pitching-poor Texas Rangers in June, ended up as the starter for Game 2. Yet what happened next was only partially his fault.

In the ensuing two innings, the Padres committed an error when shortstop Khalil Greene allowed a potential double-play ball to come up on him, and then bounce away. They twice watched their first baseman, Xavier Nady, throw home in attempts to cut down runners, but nail neither. And they saw their right fielder, Ben Johnson, drift back aimlessly on a fly ball that sailed over his head, turning it into a double for Nunez.

All of those plays contributed to a 4-0 St. Louis lead after four, and the red-clad, sellout crowd of 52,599 could all but count on waving goodbye to their Cardinals until next Wednesday, when the National League Championship Series will likely begin here. The Padres' credentials -- with an 82-80 record, the fewest wins for a division champion since 1973 -- are again in question.

"It's a new season," San Diego outfielder Brian Giles said. "You've seen a lot of wild-card teams get to the World Series -- and win it. . . . I'll take our chances with our team here."

If there was a key pitch, it came in the top of the eighth, when the Padres scored one run to cut the deficit to 6-2, and had the bases loaded, the tying run at the plate. Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa summoned lefty Randy Flores to face pinch hitter Mark Sweeney, and Flores came through, enticing Sweeney to wave at a 2-2 breaking pitch, the strikeout that kept the Padres in a deep hole in the game, in a deeper hole in the series.

"We're playing for our lives, now," Giles said.

Their lives, and their reputation.

Abraham Nunez slides safely home past the Padres' Ramon Hernandez on David Eckstein's squeeze bunt, giving the Cardinals a 1-0 lead in the 3rd inning.