Maybe the only thing surprising about the St. Louis Cardinals' sweep of the San Diego Padres was the bedlam that ensued, the champagne that sprayed into all corners of the visitors' clubhouse at Petco Park early Sunday morning, the beer bottles opened and overturned, poured down players' backs, even down their pants. Watch the Cardinals on the field in their 7-4 victory in Game 3 that easily clinched their National League Division Series, and it would be difficult to believe that such mayhem was possible from these purveyors of precision.

"I just can't recall any mistakes that they made," Padres center fielder Dave Roberts said in the quiet of the home clubhouse. "In every situation that they had an opportunity to execute, they executed. Every big play that they had to make, they made. Timely hitting. Getting the leadoff guy on. You can look up and down. They played the way they're supposed to play."

The Cardinals advanced to their third National League Championship Series in four years because between the fist pumps that betrayed their excitement, they acted like a team of surgeons, with Manager Tony La Russa running the operation. "Scalpel!" La Russa would call, and here came a perfect hit-and-run. "Syringe!" he would say next, and they would inject life with a squeeze bunt. They dictated every move, every situation, twice making San Diego Manager Bruce Bochy replace pinch hitters before they even saw a pitch, taking a multi-run lead by the third inning of every game, and never relinquishing it.

The Padres, who finished the season with 82 wins and 83 losses, were taken apart. The dissection was so crisp, so clean, so seemingly effortless that all the San Diego players could do afterward was exchange hugs, pat each other on the back and depart for the offseason knowing the better team -- the infinitely better team -- won. "That's how we try to play," Cardinals second baseman Mark Grudzielanek said. "We try not to make mistakes. If you're going to beat us, you're going to have to hit. But when you jump out on teams like that, it's tough. We've all been there, but that's hard to come back from. We jumped out on them in Game 1, and just kind of kept it going."

If there was a question going into the postseason about St. Louis, it is the same question that remains going forward: The starting pitching, because Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder and Matt Morris all stumbled down the stretch. Their greatest fault: They are not Houston's Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte, the stalwarts that had many prognosticators picking the Astros, who finished 11 games behind the Cardinals, over St. Louis when they meet in the next round.

But St. Louis's starters allowed just three runs in 182/3 innings, posted an ERA of 1.45 and didn't allow a homer against San Diego. Struggle? Where?

"We didn't give that much credence," Padres second baseman Mark Loretta said, "because we knew they clinched so early, and we knew the incentive wasn't there for them [at the end of the regular season]. We knew they'd have adrenaline, and they'd be fired up. They pitched well -- all three of them."

So with a couple of days off to rest and mull things over, it seems a fair question to ask whether the Cardinals are better equipped to win the World Series -- something the franchise has not done since 1982 -- this year than they were last, when they gutted out an enthralling NLCS over the Astros, only to be swept away by the Boston Red Sox. In that postseason, Carpenter was out with an injury, and the Cardinals hadn't yet acquired Mulder, the left-hander, in a trade with the Oakland Athletics. The answer, then, for some in the clubhouse, was easy.

"Of course we're better off," closer Jason Isringhausen said. "We got Carpenter healthy, and we got Mark Mulder. I'm not taking anything away from the other guys, but those two guys at the front of the rotation? They're pretty good."

Roberts was a key reserve for Boston a year ago, and he watched the Cardinals crumble under the Red Sox' relentless pressure. Sitting in a San Diego uniform last week, Roberts experienced the same feeling -- from the other side.

"I think last year in the World Series, they did some things that were out of character for them, as far as executing," Roberts said. "They didn't seem like the same team as this year. They're very relaxed. You just can't really see any weaknesses in that team."

Not against the Padres. And if the Cardinals continue to play with such clinical precision on the field, yet remain as bubbly and loose off it, who knows whether the weaknesses will show up?

Cardinals players enjoy a splashy celebration after pouring it on against the Padres. St. Louis had a multi-run lead by the third inning of each game on its way to the three-game sweep.