Chris Carpenter recovered from a shaky start for his second victory of the series, Juan Encarnacion hit a tiebreaking triple and the Cardinals beat the Padres 6-2 Sunday night to win their best-of-five first-round NL playoff 3-1.
"I can't say enough about this team," Carpenter said.
St. Louis nearly wasted a seven-game lead in the final two weeks of the season but rebounded against the Padres, a team they swept in the first round in 2005. Escaping trouble in each of the last two innings, the Cardinals sealed the win when Adam Wainwright got Dave Roberts on a groundout with two on, with Albert Pujols stepping on the first-base bag for the final out.
Back in the NLCS for the third straight year, the Cardinals open the next round Wednesday night at the New York Mets, who won the season series from St. Louis 4-2.
"They've got a great club," Carpenter said. "We're going to celebrate tonight and worry about them tomorrow."
While the Cardinals won the NL pennant in 2004 before getting swept by Boston, the Cardinals lost last year's NL championship to Houston in six games.
San Diego manager Bruce Bochy, whose team won the division for the second straight year, dropped to 1-9 in the postseason against the Cardinals, who also swept the Padres in the opening round in 1996. San Diego was 2-for-32 (.063) with runners in scoring position in the series.
Carpenter, who won Tuesday's opener 5-1, fell behind 2-0 in the first inning when he walked Russell Branyan with the bases loaded and Mike Cameron followed two pitches later with an RBI grounder.
But that was all the NL West champions would get off him. Carpenter got Josh Barfield to hit into a forceout.
"We did have a good chance there to break the game open," Bochy said. "We just didn't deliver."
Carpenter followed with six innings of shutout, five-hit ball, leaving him at 2-0 in the series with a 2.02 ERA. Because Cardinals manager Tony La Russa pitched him Sunday instead of saving him for a possible fifth game, he likely won't be available until the third game of the NLCS.
San Diego held back ace Jake Peavy for a possible fifth game. Williams, who took the loss, allowed four runs and five hits in 5 1-3 innings.
Ronnie Belliard, 6-for-13 in the series, tied it in the bottom half with a two-run, two-out single against Woody Williams. The game stayed tied until the four-run sixth.
Pujols started off the bottom half with a five-pitch walk and, one out later, Encarnacion drove a hanging breaking ball deep to right as Pujols lumbered around the bases for a 3-2 lead.
Cla Meredith relieved and hit Ronnie Belliard with a pitch, and Scott Spiezio singled up the middle on a 1-2 pitch to score Encarnacion. Yadier Molina's sharp single to right loaded the bases, and Carpenter hit a grounder to Branyan. The third baseman's throw was wide to the first-base side and pulled catcher Josh Bard off the plate as Belliard slid home for a three-run lead.
On the very next pitch, David Eckstein bunted up the first-base line, sending Spiezio home on the squeeze.
San Diego, in the playoffs in consecutive years for the first time, put runners at the corners with no outs in the eighth on singles by Brian Giles and Adrian Gonzalez. Tyler Johnson relieved and struck out Bard. Mike Piazza, who didn't start after banging up his shoulder in San Diego's 3-1 Game 3 win, then pinch hit. Josh Kinney came in to pitch and got Piazza to bounce into an inning-ending 6-4-3 double play.