- Eric Neel, Page 2 columnist
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SAN DIEGO -- The San Diego sun was high and bright Tuesday afternoon. The sky above Petco Park was electric blue, and delicate white clouds danced in a whispering breeze off the nearby bay. It was precisely the sort of October day that makes the locals so pleased and proud to be local.
But in the end it was the visiting St. Louis Cardinals who made themselves at home, sticking a 5-1 beating on the host Padres behind a titanic Albert Pujols home run and 6 1/3 strong innings from 2005 Cy Young award winner Chris Carpenter.
For the second straight year, Padres pitcher Jake Peavy struggled in the opening game of the National League Division Series, surrendering five runs on 11 hits, including Pujols' game-changing blast in the fourth. After Mike Piazza failed to catch a Pujols pop-up behind home plate, fighting the wind on a tough play at the fence, the Cardinals' first baseman made the Padres pay.
"I got a second chance," Pujols said afterward. "I just tried to put a good swing on it and put the ball in play."
The man with maybe the best swing in the game put it in play, all right -- in play and over the fence in deep left center, dropping a cruel calling card on the Padres' bullpen and putting his team up 2-0.
"It was a cutter that went right down the middle," Peavy said with a sad chuckle. "Those go wrong a lot."
You can't predict the playoffs. Wild-card teams make World Series runs. Teams with 116 wins bow out before winning the ultimate prize. Anything goes.
But there was an air of inevitability around Pujols' at-bat once the foul pop fell to the ground. The press box was full of seasoned writers leaning forward in anticipation. The stands were full of anxious Pads fans hoping against hope. Everyone knew what was coming. You don't give Albert Pujols second chances. If you miss a pop-up, if you groove a slider, he will take advantage. It's an immutable law.
You can't predict the playoffs, but you can call a Pujols home run -- "you make a mistake and you're probably going to pay for it," Padres manager Bruce Bochy said -- and the groaning San Diego locals had predicted their own suffering just moments before the big man put wood to leather. They knew, as he came through the zone, that their house had become his, and it took the life right out of them.
Until that point, this place and this series felt like the Padres' world. They were coming in hot (winners of eight of their last 10), they were playing before a charged-up crowd, they had their ace on the hill. The Cardinals, by comparison, were dragging, banged up and shaken. They had just barely avoided a historic late-season collapse, and their main man Carpenter had been drilled by the Pads the last time he faced them.
But with one swing, Pujols, in all his steady grace and sublime pop, flipped the script. All of a sudden, the crowd was quiet. All of a sudden, the Cards were in command, getting timely hits, making terrific plays in the field (Ronnie Belliard dove to his left and absolutely robbed Todd Walker of a bases-loaded single to right in the seventh inning), and, oh yeah, riding the back of Mr. Carpenter to victory.
It was just like old times. It was just like last year in St. Louis. Afterward, after watching his team look like his team again (both David Eckstein and Jim Edmonds were back in the lineup after nursing injuries down the stretch), manager Tony La Russa was visibly relieved, and excited.
"That's a team we like to compete with," La Russa said. "It's an all-around team. The defense is outstanding. They're all competitors. They all run the bases and will do whatever it takes to win the game."
As good as they were on the field, and as good as Pujols was at the plate, Carpenter was the real difference-maker Tuesday.
"You know going in the margin for error is not very big at all," Peavy said. "Carp didn't win the Cy Young for nothing last year."
The 6-foot-6 St. Louis right-hander looked every bit the award winner in the crucial moments in Game 1. With the Padres trying to mount a comeback in the bottom of the fourth inning, with runners on first and second and nobody out, he busted off a nasty curve to strike out San Diego first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. Then, after inducing a 6-4 groundout from Piazza, Carpenter duplicated the feat on a 3-2 count to punch out third baseman Russell Branyan and end the inning.
"What makes him so nasty," said Gonzalez, "is that it looks just like a fastball coming out of his hand." More than deceptive mechanics, Carpenter's intestinal fortitude is what knocked Branyan out. "It took a lot of guts for him to throw that [curve]," Branyan said. "In St. Louis, when I faced him in that exact situation, I laid off that pitch. I'm sure it was in the back of his mind that I could take that pitch, and he was like, 'Hey, if you're going to beat me, beat me with my best stuff.' "
"It's called pitching. It's executing pitches. You go out, keep people off balance, go back and forth on each side of the plate and execute. You don't do that, you'll get beat. You do that, you'll have success."
-- Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter
Carpenter wasn't flawless. He surrendered five hits, had to pitch out of that jam in the fourth inning and another in the sixth, and left after a Branyan triple and a walk to Mike Cameron in the seventh. But, as Branyan said, he pitched with great confidence and cunning throughout, sometimes cranking up a mid-90s heater, other times dropping a 77-mph hammer for befuddling strikes, and always looking like he had a plan, like he was working it, like he was in control.
"That's why he is as good as he is," Bochy said. "He pitches well in traffic."
Though he did admit to having a "very good" breaking ball, Carpenter wasn't all that impressed with himself (and he was about the only one in the joint who wasn't). "It's called pitching," he said matter-of-factly afterward. "It's executing pitches. You go out, keep people off balance, go back and forth on each side of the plate and execute. You don't do that, you'll get beat. You do that, you'll have success."
That workmanlike approach was pretty spectacular Tuesday afternoon, and it gave his club a decided advantage in this best-of-five series. The Padres aren't despairing. They know they ran into two great players coming up big, in Pujols and Carpenter. They know they can be the ones to come up big in Game 2 on Thursday.
"We've had a lot of ups and downs," said Peavy. "The boys are going to come out on Thursday and, I promise you, be expecting to win."
The question is, after what Pujols and Carpenter pulled on Tuesday, will it feel like a Padres home game?
Eric Neel is a columnist for Page 2. Amy K. Nelson of ESPN The Magazine contributed to this story.