With one swing of Albert Pujols' bat, a St. Louis Cardinals lineup that looked so sickly in September suddenly got a lot better under the California sun. San Diego Padres ace Jake Peavy tempted Pujols with one pitch too many and the slugger responded with a two-run homer that launched the Cardinals to a 5-1 victory in the opening game of the division series on Tuesday.
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, the result of manager Tony La Russa's gamble in keeping him out of Sunday's regular-season finale.
Even though they enjoyed home-field advantage for the first time in the opening round, San Diego still can'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.
Tuesday's win started with Pujols' 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. Peavy hurt himself when he jumped on Trevor Hoffman's head while celebrating the Padres' division title several days earlier.
Pujols, though, reminded Peavy and the Padres just how dangerous of 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.
On Monday, Peavy and manager Bruce Bochy talked about letting the situation dictate whether they pitched to Pujols, or put him on.
"I don't think about if they're going to pitch to me because I want to be aggressive," Pujols said. "If I start thinking a lot of things like that, that's going to take my aggression away. I just take whatever they give me, you know. And if they give me a good pitch today, I'm going to try to put my best swing and hopefully help my team out to win."
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' foul pop and couldn't catch it at the screen.
Pujols thought the ball was heading for the stands. Piazza couldn't tell if the ball hit the screen on the way down, but added: "I felt like I should have made the play. I really don't have an excuse. It's just one of those things that when you get a situation like that, we need a break to get an out like that."
Following Pujols' homer, Jim Edmonds singled, Scott Rolen doubled and Juan Encarnacion hit a sacrifice fly.
Overall, the two-time NL West champion Padres have lost eight straight postseason games dating to 1998, when they were swept in the World Series by the New York Yankees.
Game 2 is Thursday afternoon, when 43-year-old San Diego native David Wells is scheduled to start for the Padres against Jeff Weaver.
Carpenter limited San Diego to one run and five hits in 6 1-3 innings. He struck out seven and walked one. Peavy allowed five runs 11 hits in 5 1-3 innings, struck out two and walked one.
A's Top Twins
In the place where Johan Santana usually can't be beaten, Barry Zito and Frank Thomas slowed Minnesota's momentum and gave Oakland a big boost to start this AL division series.
Zito threw eight innings, besting Santana behind two big home runs by Thomas and sending the Athletics to a 3-2 victory over the Twins on Tuesday afternoon.
"First blood, I think, means a lot especially when you're playing on the road," Zito said.
Minnesota rookie Boof Bonser will start against Oakland's Esteban Loaiza in Game 2 Wednesday afternoon.
Thomas went 3-for-4, with his last homer coming in the ninth inning off Jesse Crain. Zito gave up four hits, one run and three walks while striking out one.
The 38-year-old Thomas became the oldest player to have a multihomer game in postseason history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
"It was a big day," Thomas said. "I'm just happy to win this first game, because is a tough place to win ballgames."
Closer Huston Street gave one back to the Twins after a leadoff triple by Michael Cuddyer was lost in the ceiling by right fielder Milton Bradley. Torii Hunter drove in Cuddyer with a groundout before Rondell White flew out to center to end the game.
The favorite to win his second AL Cy Young, Santana was 16-0 at the noisy Metrodome since Aug. 1, 2005, a span of 23 regular-season starts in which the Twins won every time.
The place was packed, of course, with 55,542 fans wiggling those white Homer Hankies and roaring every time Santana so much as made a move on the field in the minutes before the game.
But Zito and Thomas quieted the crowd early and set the tone for the series.
"Everybody's aware of it, but Zito's in the same category as Santana," Street said.
One out after the home run by Thomas in the second, Jay Payton singled and Marco Scutaro smacked a two-out double down the left-field line to give Oakland an early 2-0 edge.
"Everything was working out pretty good," Santana said. "I was throwing my fastballs in the corners. Everything was fine. Unfortunately you make one mistake, and you pay for it. Today we weren't able to come back."
The seventh was also a struggle, though Santana should've been out of the inning earlier because Jason Bartlett muffed a sure double-play grounder to shortstop. A two-out walk to Nick Swisher loaded the bases, but after a visit to the mound by pitching coach Rick Anderson, Santana retired Scutaro and Mark Ellis on consecutive short fly balls to escape.
Santana went eight innings and finished with a career playoff-best eight strikeouts. He allowed five hits and walked one.
But Zito didn't have nearly as many scares, silencing a Twins lineup that helped lead the surge back from 12 games back in the AL Central this summer to overtake the Detroit Tigers on the final day of the regular season.
The left-hander with the big leg kick and even bigger curveball consistently kept the Twins from hitting their sweet spots, no-hitting them through 4 2-3 innings and only twice letting a runner get past second base.
White's homer with two outs in the seventh cut the lead to 2-1, and Bartlett started the eighth with a double. But Luis Castillo missed a bunt attempt, eventually grounded out and Nick Punto grounded out, too. With Bartlett on third, batting champ Joe Mauer was retired on a lazy fly to left.
After his 16-year career with the Chicago White Sox ended badly, injured ankle, attitude and all, Thomas has enjoyed a resurgence in his first season with the A's — racking up 39 homers and 114 RBIs.
He talked with the Twins, ironically, about joining them to serve as the designated hitter, but they were concerned about his health on the artificial turf and Thomas signed with Oakland instead for $500,000 plus incentives.
When Santana fell behind on a 3-1 count to his first batter of the second inning, he left a breaking ball out over the plate that Thomas put one of his long, powerful swings on — sending it high, deep and just inside the left-field foul pole.
Thomas is 8-for-19 with three homers and five RBIs in his career against Santana. The Big Hurt now has 50 homers and 132 RBIs in 171 career games against Minnesota, his most against any opponent and the second-most hit by one player against the Twins behind Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson (51).
"It seems like he always gets hot when he comes to play us," said Mauer, who went 0-for-3 with a walk.
Zito and third baseman Eric Chavez are the only players who were a part of each of Oakland's first-round losers from 2000 to 2003, teams that failed a total of nine times to win games with a chance to eliminate the opponent.
In fact, Ellis, the second baseman, is the only other guy left from 2002, when the A's were beaten in five by the Twins. Zito won Game 3 that year at the Metrodome, Oakland's most recent playoff victory.
It's Minnesota that's in a hole now, though comebacks are nothing new to this team.
"Same as we've been doing all year," first baseman Justin Morneau said. "Everybody's going to say we're done again, but we don't believe that."