ST. LOUIS – When Mark Mulder took a line drive off his arm in the second inning and doubled over in pain, the St. Louis Cardinals figured it would be a short outing for their 16-game winner.

Instead, Mulder shook off the hard shot to his left biceps from Joe Randa – the same way he tossed aside a pair of poor tuneup starts – and put his team on the brink of a playoff sweep.

Mulder pitched shutout ball into the seventh inning and the Cardinals once again built an early lead, beating the San Diego Padres 6-2 Thursday for a 2-0 edge in their best-of-five NL series.

“Once the inning starts there’s so much adrenaline it didn’t bother me much,” Mulder said. “If I couldn’t have made good pitches I would have said All right, I’ve had enough.’

“I didn’t want to come out of that game.”

Matt Morris will try to clinch it for St. Louis on Saturday at San Diego against Woody Williams. Mulder was with the Oakland Athletics when they squandered a 2-0 lead against the Red Sox in 2003.

“We held home field advantage,” David Eckstein said. “One thing we’ve got to do, we’ve got to stay aggressive. We can’t wait to get over there.”

The Cardinals, who led the majors with 100 wins this season, have advanced to the NL championship series four times in five chances under manager Tony La Russa. San Diego, which limped into the playoffs with an 82-80 record, hasn’t shown any signs of stopping them.

“We’ve put pressure on that team, we just haven’t come up with the big hit yet,” Brian Giles said. “We’re playing for our lives now.”

The 2003 Red Sox were the last of the seven teams that have rallied from a 2-0 deficit in division series play.

Mulder was 16-8 in his first season since being acquired from Oakland, but gave up seven earned runs over 5 2-3 innings in two starts after the Cardinals clinched the NL Central. Plus, the lefty was a decidedly better pitcher at night (14-3, 2.26 ERA) than day (2-5, 6.86).

Mulder scoffed at both of those trends the day before Game 2, blanking a lineup stacked with seven right-handed hitters until the late innings and backed by four double plays, tying the NLDS record. Mulder induced 13 groundball outs and only one fly out.

“I like using my defense; that’s why when you give up a hit I’m not going to be that mad,” Mulder said. “The next pitch you can get a double play. That’s part of my game in a way.”

Mulder kept the arm loose between innings by retreating to the clubhouse and applying a heat pack. After the game he said it looked like he had a “golf ball” on his biceps but said it was just a bruise.

He blamed himself for not fielding Randa’s liner, or at least getting out of the way.

Braves 7, Astros 1

ATLANTA – The Braves rocked the Rocket, John Smoltz picked up where he left off six years ago, and Atlanta finds itself all even with the Houston Astros in the NL playoffs.

Rookie Brian McCann hit a three-run homer in his first postseason at-bat, which were all the runs Smoltz needed to lead the Braves past Roger Clemens and the Astros 7-1 on Thursday night, tying the best-of-five series at one game apiece.

Smoltz broke a one-day tie with Houston’s Andy Pettitte to reclaim the title of baseball’s winningest postseason pitcher. The right-hander improved to 15-4 with seven strong innings in his first October start since the 1999 World Series.

With the NL East champion Braves having bounced back from a 10-5 loss in Game 1, the series shifts to Houston. Twenty-game winner Roy Oswalt is set to go against Atlanta’s surprising 13-game winner, Jorge Sosa, on Saturday.

The Astros hope Oswalt looks better than Clemens, who led the majors in ERA (1.87) at age 43 but was bothered late in the season by a sore hamstring.

McCann sent the Turner Field crowd into a frenzy when he connected with two outs and two on in the second, driving a fastball into the right-field seats to put the Braves up 3-1.

The 21-year-old catcher became the first player in Braves history – including Boston and Milwaukee, too – to homer in his first trip to the plate in the postseason.

McCann, one of 18 rookies who played for Atlanta this season, started the year at Double-A Mississippi. He was born less than three months before Clemens made his major league debut with the Boston Red Sox in 1984.

The Braves stretched their lead to 5-1 in the third. Adam LaRoche hit an opposite-field double to bring home two more runs. The ball slipped under the glove of diving left fielder Orlando Palmeiro before rolling all the way to the wall.

With Smoltz on the mound – stiff shoulder and all – the lead was secure. This is what he yearned for after spending three-plus seasons as the Braves closer, a role that left his playoff fortunes in the hands of others.

Smoltz had to wait an extra day to make this long-awaited playoff start, getting bumped from the expected Game 1 nod to give his shoulder a little extra rest.

No problem, considering how long he already had waited.

Back in that 99 World Series, Smoltz’s last year as a starter before an elbow injury cost him an entire season and prompted his move to the bullpen, he struck out 11 in Game 4 against the Yankees.

It wasn’t enough to keep New York from completing the sweep with a 4-1 victory.

And the winning pitcher that day? Clemens, who was back to face Smoltz, now 38, in the oldest pitching matchup in postseason history.

The Braves added two more runs in the seventh against reliever Chad Qualls, even with two runners thrown out on the basepaths. Andruw Jones and Jeff Francoeur had RBI singles to give the shaky Braves bullpen a six-run cushion.

Jones, who came into the playoffs mired in a 6-for-51 slump, followed up a Game 1 homer with three more hits, scoring each time.

Chris Reitsma, who retired only one hitter while giving up four runs in the opener, gave up a leadoff single in the eighth but retired the next three hitters. Closer Kyle Farnsworth worked a scoreless ninth.

Houston took a 1-0 lead in the first on a run-scoring single by Jason Lane.

Smoltz threw 93 pitches, his shoulder holding up just fine as he gave up one run and seven hits. His only walk was an intentional one, and he struck out five.

Clemens left after the fifth, his line showing five runs, six hits, three walks and only two strikeouts. It equaled the most earned runs he allowed during a regular-season game, and Houston’s offensive support was about par for the course.

In 20 of the Rocket’s 32 starts coming into the playoffs, the Astros scored three runs or less – including nine shutouts.

Notes: According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Seattle’s Jamie Moyer and Cleveland’s Chuck Finley held the previous record for oldest pitchers to face each other in the postseason, a combined 77 years when they went in Game 5 of the 2001 ALDS. … Braves manager Bobby Cox and first base umpire Jeff Nelson got plenty of face time. Three times, Cox came out to argue close calls at first. … Attendance was 46,181 – about 5,000 short of a sellout on a drizzly night.

AP-ES-10-06-05 2313EDT

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