Mr. October, for a day
Before driving in six runs in Game 1, Reggie Sanders was typecast as the quintessential vagabond and a guy known for stinking it up in October, writes Jerry Crasnick.
ST. LOUIS -- Reggie Sanders travels in faster and more powerful company than people realize. With eight more home runs and three more stolen bases, he'll join Willie Mays, Andre Dawson and Bobby and Barry Bonds as the fifth player in history with 300 of each.
He is also a guy you'd love to have drop over and borrow the power tools. If Cincinnati first baseman Sean "The Mayor" Casey quit tomorrow to become a country singer, Sanders might win a poll as the nicest, earthiest, most courteous player in a big-league clubhouse.
There's validity to both perceptions. After leaving the Cincinnati Reds in 1999 in a trade for Greg Vaughn, Sanders had a dizzying run of one-year cameos in San Diego, Atlanta, Arizona, San Francisco and Pittsburgh before the Cardinals mercifully signed him to a two-year contract in December 2003. As a productive, relatively affordable corner man, Sanders never had any shortage of offers. Potential suitors were just commitment-phobic.
As for the October numbers, they're Friday the 13th caliber-scary. Sanders whiffed 19 times in 29 at-bats in his playoff debut with Cincinnati in 1995 and never found his groove. He entered this October with a .188 career postseason average, 69 strikeouts and only 13 RBI in 191 at-bats.
But things are suddenly on an upswing. Sanders has suddenly raised his postseason average to .195. And the Cardinals absolutely love his new look.
Before Tony La Russa sucked the life out of Busch Stadium with a dizzying array of double switches and bullpen machinations Tuesday, Sanders had the place rocking. First came a two-run, bases-loaded single in the fourth inning. Then he took advantage of a 3-0 green light to hit a grand slam off Jake Peavy, and the Cardinals rolled the Padres, 8-5, to take a 1-0 Division Series lead before 52,349 red-clad celebrants in St. Louis.
The Cardinals, fresh off their second straight 100-win season, put to rest the notion that they're vulnerable. Cy Young candidate Chris Carpenter threw six shutout innings before leaving with cramps in his hands caused by dehydration. St. Louis turned three double plays and had the game locked up until Jason Isringhausen and the bullpen made it a little too exciting.
The Cardinals had a formidable task Tuesday in solving Peavy, who ranked sixth in the league with a 2.88 ERA and overcame a recent bout of shoulder trouble to finish the regular season strong. Peavy allowed a first-inning homer to Jim Edmonds, but needed only 19 pitches -- 17 of them strikes -- to record his first six outs.
"With a guy like that, you've got to get him early," said Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols. "If he starts to feel comfortable and make his pitches, he might throw eight or nine strong innings at you."
The bulk of St. Louis' production came from its aging, medically-challenged outfield. Sanders, who returned from a broken right fibula three weeks ago, set a National League Division Series record with his six RBI. Edmonds, playing with a sprained shoulder, contributed a homer, double and a single. And Larry Walker, who has had four cortisone injections in his neck this season, walked twice and made a spectacular running catch on Joe Randa to prevent the Padres from doing more damage in the ninth.
"We're the WWF outfield, I guess," Walker said. "We've been through some rough times, but we're good to go. Our pains are minor right now."
Sanders was on track for a 30-30 season when things unraveled shortly after the All-Star break. While racing in pursuit of a Craig Biggio fly ball in Houston, he collided with Edmonds and suffered a bruised rib and what the Cardinals believed to be an ankle sprain.
That turned out to be wishful thinking: Subsequent tests showed that Sanders had a hairline fracture of his fibula, and the prognosis called for him to miss four to six weeks.
Sanders allowed himself a day of self-pity, then went about the lonely business of rehabilitation. He took his swings in the cage, made road trips with the team so he could be a "cheerleader," and commuted to the ballpark with his neighbor, Walker.
When Walker wasn't dogging Sanders about his "bootleg" musical selections, they spent plenty of time talking baseball and commiserating about injuries.
"It was one of those things where he leaned on me and I leaned on him," Sanders said. "We all do that for each other here. This team is all about family and unity and having each other's backs."
Said Walker: "It was just a way to save gasoline. Heck, I shower with the guy, so a ride home is no big deal."
For Sanders, the recovery process unfolded in baby steps. Hitting coach Hal McRae pinpointed Sanders' three walks against Milwaukee on Sept. 23 as a pivotal moment, because it meant Sanders was finally exercising the requisite patience. Once that occurred, all he had to do was regain his timing.
Consider it done. After the Padres gave Walker an intentional walk to load the bases in the third inning, Sanders hit a ball off first baseman Mark Sweeney and into short right field. Two runners scored and St. Louis led 4-0. In the fifth, Sanders did considerably more, driving a 3-0 pitch from Peavy into the seats to make it 8-0.
The result of all that mashing: A rare postseason curtain call for Sanders. When you're lugging around a .188 career postseason average, you grow accustomed to taunts and boos upon leaving the dugout. But Sanders has long since junked the tension of 1995, when he was just an anxious young Reds outfielder jumping out of his spikes.
"With experience, you learn how to house those emotions and focus on what you need to focus on," Sanders said. "A lot of times you get too involved with outside forces instead of what you need to be worrying about."
One day doesn't change history of course, but it's a step in the right direction. After his big afternoon at the yard, Reggie Sanders pulled on a "Black Sabbath" T-shirt and got his musical selections in order for the ride home to the suburbs. He and his pal, Larry Walker, would have plenty to discuss.