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Cardinals sweep Padres out of playoffs

SAN DIEGO (AP) -- The St. Louis Cardinals surrounded Reggie
Sanders in the clubhouse and chanted "MVP! MVP! MVP!"

They drenched him in so much champagne that he sprinted into the
trainer's room for refuge, eventually re-emerging with a towel
around his head.

Sanders and the Cardinals seem to be in a hurry to return to the
World Series, and they weren't about to be slowed by the San Diego
Padres.

Baseball's best team in the regular season, the Cardinals
brushed aside San Diego just as almost everybody thought they
would, winning 7-4 Saturday night for a three-game sweep of their
first-round playoff series.

"Well, it never gets old," Sanders said between dousings. "It
was fun. I'm not quite there yet with what's going on. When they
say 'MVP,' it's numbing. It's not like it's over yet."

The Cardinals made it to the World Series last year before
flopping in a four-game sweep by the Boston Red Sox. St. Louis
advances to the NL championship series for the fourth time in six
years, and will have home-field advantage against the winner of the
Houston-Atlanta series. The Astros lead 2-1 -- they lost to St.
Louis in seven games in last year's NLCS.

There is no MVP award for the first round -- but if there was,
Sanders certainly would have won.

He drove in two more runs to set an NL division series record
with 10, and little David Eckstein hit his first career postseason
homer as the Cardinals chased former teammate Woody Williams before
he could get out of the second inning.

Right-hander Matt Morris, who's been with the Cardinals since
1997 and is their longest-tenured player, recovered from his
late-season struggles to hold the Padres hitless for 4 1-3 innings.
With two on in the bottom of the ninth, Jason Isringhausen struck
out Brian Giles and retired Ryan Klesko on a comebacker to earn his
10th career postseason save.

Sanders and Eckstein are the only Cardinals players with World
Series rings. Eckstein won his with the Angels in 2002, and Sanders
the previous season with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

The Cardinals were relatively subdued while celebrating on the
field after the final out, but they let loose once they reached the
cases of champagne in the clubhouse.

"It's nice," Jim Edmonds said. "We're trying to really be
careful and not get it out of control. We're working toward the
goal of winning the World Series. This is a good step."

"That's our mission," second baseman Mark Grudzielanek said.
"We've got to get back there and try to win the thing. That's what
it's all about."

And with the way Sanders drove in runs, they've got a good
chance.

"He was phenomenal. You can't say enough about the guy,"
Grudzielanek said.

"He was big in each game," St. Louis manager Tony La Russa
said. "I don't think he had a meaningless RBI. He really lit it up
for us. He was the guy that provided the margin where it wasn't
quite as scary.

"He fits in," La Russa added. "One of the things we believe
about our club is we have a bunch of guys who are prime-timers, who
are not afraid to take big at-bats."

San Diego was as mediocre in this series as it was in winning
the woeful NL West. The Padres never led, and their starting
pitchers lasted only 10 innings, with a 13.50 ERA. San Diego
(82-80) entered the playoffs with the worst winning percentage of a
division champion (.506) in a non-strike season. Including this
series, they finished one game under .500.

"When those guys have the lead, they smell blood," Padres
leadoff hitter Dave Roberts said. "No one expected anything from
us."

Other than a ninth-inning rally by the Padres that fell short in
Game 1, this series was like a bully kicking sand in the face of a
98-pound weakling at the beach. Sanders, who played for the Padres
in 1999, did the most damage.

In Game 1, he hit a grand slam off ace Jake Peavy and finished
with an NL division series-record six RBI, then drove in two more
runs in Game 2.

Saturday night, Sanders stepped in against Williams with the
bases loaded and two outs in the second, and lined a 1-1 pitch into
left field for a 5-0 lead.

"Sanders killed us," Padres manager Bruce Bochy said. "He had
a big series."

Four batters earlier, Williams left an 85 mph pitch over the
middle of the plate and Eckstein -- the 5-foot-7, 165-pound
shortstop -- drove it over the left-field fence for a two-run homer.
It was Eckstein's 24th career postseason game. He had three hits
and a walk.

Williams made four postseason starts for St. Louis last year,
including Game 1 of the World Series, when he allowed seven runs
and eight hits over 2 1-3 innings for a no-decision in an 11-9
loss.

Williams was shaky from the start of San Diego's first home
postseason game since 1998. Eckstein singled to shallow left-center
on the second pitch and scored on Albert Pujols' double to
right-center with one out.

The Cardinals batted around in the second. Morris was aboard for
Eckstein's homer, then Williams loaded the bases by allowing a
double to Jim Edmonds, intentionally walking Pujols and hitting
Larry Walker with a pitch on the right knee. Sanders' double chased
the 39-year-old right-hander.

"When he's seeing everything good, there's not a whole lot you
can do about it," Williams said.

Williams allowed five runs and six hits in 1 2-3 innings, struck
out two and walked two.

Morris held San Diego to two runs and five hits in six innings,
struck out four and walked three. He began the year 10-1 but ended
the regular season with a career-high five-game losing streak,
spanning seven starts.

St. Louis took a 7-0 lead on Yadier Molina's two-run single in
the fifth. All-Star closer Trevor Hoffman made his first appearance
of the series for the Padres in the ninth, but San Diego trailed by
three runs.

The Padres finally broke through against Morris a half-inning
later. Joe Randa hit a one-out double and scored on a single by
pinch-hitter Eric Young. Mark Loretta singled in Young.

Roberts homered in the seventh off Brad Thompson, and Ramon
Hernandez connected in the eighth against Julian Tavarez.

Game notes
This was the first playoff game in Petco Park's two-year
history, and the first postseason game in San Diego since Game 4 of
the 1998 World Series, when the New York Yankees completed a sweep.
... San Diego has lost seven straight postseason games. ... The
Padres also were swept by the Cardinals in the 1996 division
series.