Cardinals 5, Astros 3

-- When the situation calls for a bunt, they square around, place the bat on the ball, and tap it softly to the grass as if filming an instructional video. When the opponent threatens and a man reaches third base, their infielders take grounders and throw home to their catcher, who then applies a tag, sure and quick. And thus far in this postseason, when the St. Louis Cardinals are presented an opportunity, they don't waste it, which means their opponent in this National League Championship Series, the Houston Astros, will have to apply pressure on them, because they certainly don't place it on themselves.

The Cardinals took a 5-3 victory in Game 1 Wednesday night at Busch Stadium because they continued the clinic that began last week with their sweep of the San Diego Padres in the division series, one that shows no signs of ending. They received a splendid start from ace right-hander Chris Carpenter, who tossed eight innings and allowed just five hits, badly outshining Houston's Andy Pettitte. They scored in ways both mammoth -- such as Reggie Sanders's two-run homer in the first -- and minute, such as Carpenter's squeeze bunt in the second. And they defended deftly, never better than when third baseman Abraham Nunez gunned down a runner at the plate with an excellent throw to catcher Yadier Molina in the fourth.

The performance is precisely the kind their meticulous -- some would say over-bearing -- manager, Tony La Russa, begins cultivating in spring training. "We build," shortstop David Eckstein said, "from ground zero." And they do so to get to this point, trying to win the franchise's first World Series since 1982. Their chances, considering the way they're playing, appear better every day.

"It's real clear that we're going to come out, and we're going to play," La Russa said. "We're ready for any kind of game."

The command performance only stalled briefly in the ninth, when an error by Eckstein -- the only Cardinal with an error in the playoffs -- allowed men to reach second and third with one out against closer Jason Isringhausen. Brad Ausmus's sacrifice fly brought the Astros within two runs, but pinch hitter Jose Vizcaino -- the tying run -- tapped the first pitch he saw to first baseman Albert Pujols, and the crowd of 52,332 roared its approval before it spilled out of the old building, celebrating into the night.

The fans, nearly all clad in red, liked what they saw, for their Cardinals have yet to trail in the postseason. Headed into Thursday's Game 2, in which Houston's 20-game winner, Roy Oswalt, will face St. Louis left-hander Mark Mulder, the Cardinals' confidence is merely growing.

"We'll take this," second baseman Mark Grudzielanek said, "and take the exact same approach tomorrow."

St. Louis may have had an advantage before the game even began, because Pettitte -- who already had to shake off severe nausea and headaches from earlier in the week -- was struck on the inside of his right knee by a batted ball while running the bases during batting practice.

"I think it had a little effect on him," Astros Manager Phil Garner said. The veteran left-hander, who tied Tom Glavine for most starts in the postseason with 32, uncharacteristically allowed five runs in six innings.

Unlike Pettitte, Carpenter had never before been on such a stage. Yet he calmly induced 16 groundball outs, none more important than a laser off the bat of Lance Berkman in the third inning, which Grudzielanek and Eckstein turned into a double play that thwarted a bases-loaded threat.

"That was the ballgame," Garner said, "and we didn't get anything after that."

The Cardinals got what they needed in the first, when Sanders launched a 1-2 offering from Pettitte on a path that appeared almost identical to the nearby Gateway Arch, a majestic shot that landed some 445 feet away in left, providing the Cardinals with a 2-0 lead, and eliciting chants of "Reg-gie! Reg-gie!"

But the most impressive elements of the Cardinals' win, those that should be packaged for Little Leaguers, came later. Take the second inning, when they had runners at first and third. Carpenter was up, and he showed bunt, apparently just trying to move Nunez from first to second. But Pettitte missed with his first pitch, and the Astros called a pitch-out on the next. Nothing doing.

At least not then. From the home dugout, La Russa seized the opportunity. With the count 2-0, Pettitte had to come with a strike, so La Russa sent Grudzielanek from third. The squeeze was on, and Carpenter executed it wonderfully, scoring the run, and exciting the throng in a much different manner than Sanders's homer.

Then came the fourth, when Houston had Morgan Ensberg on third, Jason Lane on first. The Cardinals' commitment to fundamentals -- physical and mental -- showed up in the communication between Molina, the catcher, and Nunez, the third baseman. The pair noted that Ensberg isn't the swiftest runner.

"I told him," Molina said, "if it's a roller, or a chopper, come home."

So when Houston shortstop Adam Everett bounced one directly over the third base bag, Nunez charged it, fielded it, and seemingly used the bag to propel his momentum to the plate. Molina set up a target inside the baseline, took the throw, and swiped an emphatic tag on Ensberg.

"Our players, they pay attention on defense," La Russa said. "You watch. You don't see any bad body language. You don't see guys standing around. They are moving. They are ready, moving on [different] counts. Guys take a lot of pride."

It is apparent, thus far in these playoffs, why. After Eckstein's error in the ninth, he kicked at the dirt. For the St. Louis Cardinals in October, mistakes are not part of the plan. And the plan, with La Russa at the drawing board, is to be followed at all times.

Cardinals starter Chris Carpenter lays down a bunt to help his own cause, scoring Mark Grudzielanek on a suicide squeeze in the second inning.