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Pujols, Cardinals are feeling better

SAN DIEGO -- With one swing of Albert Pujols's bat, a St. Louis Cardinals lineup that looked so sickly in September suddenly got a lot better.

San Diego Padres ace Jake Peavy tempted Pujols with one pitch too many yesterday and the slugger, who has a shot at a second straight NL MVP award, responded with a two-run homer that launched the Cardinals to a 5-1 victory in the opening game of their division series.

Everything went well for the Cardinals, from the second chance Pujols got when catcher Mike Piazza couldn't catch his foul ball to having ace Chris Carpenter fresh for the playoff opener.

Even though they enjoyed home-field advantage for the first time in the opening round, San Diego still couldn't beat the Cardinals in October. The three-time NL Central champion Cardinals have won seven straight postseason games against the Padres, including division series sweeps last year and in 1996.

Yesterday's win started with Pujols's impressive drive in the fourth inning that broke a scoreless tie. Pujols connected on Peavy's eighth pitch.

``What an at-bat," St. Louis leadoff hitter David Eckstein said. ``Being able to foul off pitches, take some pitches, and then do what he did, that ignited the whole club."

Peavy was hoping for far better results than Game 1 of last year's playoff series, when he lost, 8-5, to Carpenter at St. Louis while pitching with two broken ribs.

Pujols, though, reminded Peavy and the Padres just how dangerous a hitter he is. Peavy left a full-count cut fastball over the plate and Pujols drove it an estimated 422 feet into the Padres' bullpen beyond the fence in left-center for his 11th career postseason home run.

Peavy knew he had little margin for error.

``It was a cutter that was right down the middle," Peavy said. ``Yeah, those go wrong a lot."

The at-bat was kept alive when Piazza got a late jump on Pujols's foul pop and couldn't catch it at the screen.

Following Pujols's homer, Jim Edmonds singled, Scott Rolen doubled, and Juan Encarnacion hit a sacrifice fly.

While Peavy struggled -- he left to a mixture of boos and light applause in the sixth -- Carpenter, the reigning NL Cy Young winner, kept the Padres' suspect offense off-balance with his curveball, limiting San Diego to one run and five hits in 6 1/3 innings. He struck out seven and walked one.

Carpenter made adjustments and got out of jams.

``My stuff was good," he said. ``My location was good. And my breaking ball was very good."

The Padres came into this series more confident and healthier than the Cardinals, who backed into the playoffs after barely avoiding one of the worst September collapses ever.

But, said Padres leadoff hitter Dave Roberts, ``Those guys have a lot of confidence when it comes to the postseason. They've had a lot of success. Today was definitely evidence."

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