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Pitching on his 42nd birthday, Dennis Eckersley didn't look, feel or act any older.

The St. Louis closer was in vintage form Thursday, retiring the San Diego Padres in order in the ninth inning before a record crowd of 56,752 to preserve a 5-4 victory that gave the Cardinals a 2-0 series lead."The bigger the situation, the cooler he is," manager Tony La Russa said. "I always appreciate how quickly he goes about his business. That's a very stressful time for anybody that cares about the win, whether you're the defense, coaches, fans, manager. He doesn't go 3-and-2, he goes boom, boom, boom."

Tom Pagnozzi got the game-winner in the eighth inning, snapping a tie with a liner off the glove of reliever Trevor Hoffman that scored Brian Jordan from third. That left it up to Eckersley, who had 30 saves in 34 chances in the regular season.

The ninth was routine considering the stakes as John Flaherty popped out to shortstop, Chris Gomez struck out and pinch-hitter Greg Vaughn grounded to third.

"I'll tell you what, you don't feel 42 when the crowd is electric like that," said Eckersley, who has 13 postseason saves. "I mean, it's humming out there. I'm just glad I have enough experience not to get too psyched."

He also knows better than to get too excited about the prospect of sweeping the Padres out of the playoffs in Game 3 on Saturday when St. Louis' Donovan Osborne opposes Andy Ashby. For one thing, he pitched for the Chicago Cubs in 1984 when they had a 2-0 series lead and ended up losing in seven games to the Padres.

From La Russa's perspective, the Padres have already pulled off a whopper by sweeping the Dodgers in L.A. on the final week of the season to win the NL West.

The Padres certainly aren't counting themselves out. Yet Tony Gwynn said the situation was not comparable to the Dodgers sweep.

The Cardinals got contributions from their heralded newcomers and a couple of leftovers. Their two highest-paid players came through as Ron Gant hit a three-run double off reliever Dario Veras in the fifth and Andy Benes worked seven strong innings against his old team.

Pagnozzi is one of three players left from the 1987 team that made it to the World Series, and also the last time they made it to the playoffs.

Pagnozzi, who was a rookie backup catcher behind Tony Pena on that team, ended nine years of frustration in the eighth. Willie McGee, another '87 holdover, had a run-scoring single in the third.

Brian Jordan drew a leadoff walk in the eighth off loser Doug Bochtler and advanced on a groundout before John Mabry, who hadn't hit the ball out of the infield in six playoff at-bats, was intentionally walked.

Bochtler's wild pitch moved the runners into scoring position, and Pagnozzi lined a 1-1 pitch just to the left of Hoffman, who got the tip of his glove on the ball but couldn't catch it. The ball caromed to second baseman Jody Reed, who threw to first as Jordan scored.

Bochtler blamed himself for the loss.

"I was all over the place," he said. "This isn't the time to be like that. It's not like I was out there like a scared rabbit or anything."

But Hoffman said the Padres would have been better off if he hadn't gotten his glove on the ball. He said second baseman Jody Reed might have caught it.

The Cardinals led 4-1 before the Padres rallied to tie it. Consecutive singles by pinch-hitter Chris Gwynn, Rickey Henderson and Tony Gwynn produced two runs in the sixth. Center fielder McGee threw wildly to third on Tony Gwynn's RBI single, trying to catch Henderson at third, to allow the second run to score.

Benes retired the first 12 batters, striking out six, before Ken Caminiti led off the fifth with a home run - his first fair ball of the series. Benes struck out nine, one short of his season high, and allowed four runs on six hits.