ST. LOUIS (AP) – “Reggie! Reggie! Reggie!” There’s a new Mr. October in the baseball playoffs.

Reggie Sanders hit a two-run homer, extending his torrid postseason run, and Chris Carpenter kept pitching out of trouble to lead the St. Louis Cardinals past the Houston Astros 5-3 in Game 1 of the NL championship series Wednesday night.

The Cardinals kept up the pattern of home-field dominance that held up throughout last year’s NLCS against the Astros. The home team won every game, giving St. Louis a seven-game victory and a trip to the World Series.

In the league’s first championship rematch since 1992, the Cardinals again got the upper hand on their Central Division rival, a team they finished 11 games ahead of. But they have to get by the Astros again for a chance at World Series redemption after their four-game sweep by the Boston Red Sox in 2004.

The wild-card Astros got off to a poor start before the series even began. While running the bases in batting practice, starting pitcher Andy Pettitte was struck in the leg with a ball.

The Astros insisted the left-hander was fine, but he sure didn’t look like a pitcher who was 17-9 with the NL’s second-lowest ERA (2.39) during the regular season.

Pettitte exceeded his regular-season ERA before the game was three innings old. Sanders hit his mammoth shot in the first, and St. Louis made it 3-0 in the second on Carpenter’s squeeze bunt, a familiar offensive weapon for the small-ball Cardinals.

Sanders, a flop in five previous postseasons, has resembled Reggie Jackson this time around. The 37-year-old outfielder had a homer and 10 RBIs in a three-game sweep of the San Diego Padres in the opening round, including a division series-record six RBIs in the opener. He didn’t take long to get going in the NLCS. After David Eckstein led off for the Cardinals with a single, Sanders came up with two outs and the runner still at first. Pettitte jumped ahead in the count 1-2, but left the next pitch over the plate. Sanders got all of it, sending a 445-foot drive that just missed the scoreboard hanging above the auxiliary press box in left field.

As he trotted back to left field in the top of the second, the fans who had just gotten an up-close look at the homer serenaded Sanders with chants of “Reggie! Reggie! Reggie!”

For good measure, Sanders also made a leaping catch against the wall on Mike Lamb to end the sixth. Once again, the crowd erupted in chants of “Reggie! Reggie! Reggie!” Fellow outfielders Jim Edmonds and Larry Walker were waiting to congratulate Sanders when he got back to the dugout.

Before this year, Sanders’ postseason resume was dismal: 36-for-191 for a .188 average, with five homers and 13 RBIs.

Carpenter was eager to get on the mound after last year’s NLCS, when he couldn’t pitch because of a nerve problem in his right biceps. A 21-game winner during the regular season, he escaped a couple of early jams and then took advantage of a comfortable lead when the Cardinals added two more runs in the fifth.

He had a shutout through 6 2-3 innings, but it was broken up by Chris Burke’s pinch-hit, two-run homer. Still, Carpenter allowed just five hits and looked every bit like the ace of the strong St. Louis staff.

Jason Isringhausen worked the ninth for the save, allowing an unearned run on a sacrifice fly by Brad Ausmus.

A Game 1 victory is usually a good omen in the NLCS. Twelve straight times, the winner of the opener has gone on to the World Series. The last team that didn’t follow that path: the 1991 Atlanta Braves. It wasn’t that the Astros didn’t have chances to get back in the game. They loaded the bases with one out in the third on Ausmus’ single and two walks, bringing up slugger Lance Berkman.

He hit a hard grounder that second baseman Mark Grudzielanek gloved going to his left, then whirled to make a throw that was a little wide of second. Shortstop Eckstein stretched out to make the catch, then jumped over the sliding runner to bounce a throw to first, which was scooped out by Albert Pujols to complete the double play.

The following inning, Morgan Ensberg led off with a ground-rule double and moved over to third on a groundout. After Jason Lane walked, Adam Everett hit a chopper down the third-base line. Abraham Nunez fielded the ball and turned his body like he was going to take the sure out at first. Instead, he came home with the throw, and Yadier Molina put the tag on Ensberg just before his foot touched the plate.

The Astros finally got to Carpenter in the seventh. Burke homered in his second straight at-bat, albeit three days apart. His two-run drive followed an 18th-inning homer Sunday that ended the longest game in postseason history and gave Houston an opening-round victory over the East champion Braves.

But Burke’s homer was about the only highlight for the Astros, who mimicked their regular season by struggling to score runs and didn’t get the sort of performance they’re used to from a member of the “Big Three” – starters Pettitte, Roy Oswalt and Roger Clemens, who held three of the top seven spots on league’s ERA list.

Pettitte lasted six innings, giving up eight hits and his most runs since he was tagged for six in a June 14 loss to Baltimore. He was perhaps baseball’s hottest pitcher over the final three months of the season, going 13-2 with a 1.69 ERA in his last 18 starts.

Like Carpenter, Pettitte also missed last year’s NLCS while recovering from elbow surgery. He was supposedly healthy this time around, winning Game 1 of the division series against the Braves and coming into the rematch against the Cardinals looking for his 15th playoff victory and a tie with Atlanta’s John Smoltz as the winningest postseason pitcher in baseball history.

But Pettitte was stricken by a flu bug last weekend. Then, he was hit in batting practice. It sure seemed to take a toll in Game 1.

Notes: Walker was 0-for-10 in the postseason until a broken-bat single in the fourth. … Carpenter had 16 groundball outs.

AP-ES-10-12-05 2305EDT

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