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Cards draw first blood in NLCS

ST. LOUIS — Make no mistake about it — this is a sluggers' series.

Albert Pujols homered early, Larry Walker delivered three key hits and the St. Louis Cardinals withstood four Houston shots to outlast the Astros 10-7 Wednesday night in Game 1 of the NL championship series.

"We got some huge hits that fell in for us," Walker said. "A string of hits is just as good as hitting the ball out of the ballpark."

Slumping Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds also contributed, and winning pitcher Woody Williams even helped out with a big double for the league's top-hitting team.

Together, that was enough — barely — to withstand homers by Carlos Beltran, Lance Berkman, Jeff Kent and Mike Lamb.

And it was a significant victory: The last 11 teams to win the opener of the NLCS have gone on to the World Series.

No one thought pitchers would rule in this series, and it was an accurate prediction. Edmonds' three-run double with two outs capped a six-run sixth inning that broke the game open and put St. Louis ahead 10-4.

"We couldn't quite get the outs that we needed," Astros manager Phil Garner said.

In an October when the ball is flying, the Cardinals and Astros took turns whacking shots all over Busch Stadium, with Walker finishing a home run shy of becoming the first player in postseason history to hit for the cycle.

Given a chance to do it, Walker struck out in his final at-bat.

"That's all I needed, just a home run? I think you could tell from my swings I was hacking at it pretty good," he said. "I knew what was at stake. I took a shot at it. I wasn't trying to hit a line drive."

Now, unheralded Pete Munro gets his chance to try to slow down the team that led the majors with 105 victories. A guy who started the season in the minors with Minnesota, Munro will start Game 2 for Houston against 15-game winner Matt Morris on Thursday night.

For sure, Garner will find himself watching The Weather Channel overnight. The forecast is for showers, and the wild-card Astros would certainly welcome it.

A rainout would allow them to bring back ace Roger Clemens in Game 2 and then use 20-game winner Roy Oswalt back home in Game 3.

Chad Qualls wound up as the losing pitcher, in relief of Brandon Backe. Jason Isringhausen got the final out for a save.

Rolen, bothered by a strained left calf, was 0-for-14 in this postseason before lining a single that made it 4-all in the fifth.

Williams' one-out double got the inning going, and Walker later snapped his bat on an RBI double. The ball looped to left while the shattered barrel flew into the Cardinals' first-base dugout and sent Edmonds scurrying.

For all the big hits, the Cardinals strung together a bunch of little ones in the game-turning sixth inning.

Reggie Sanders got an infield single and pinch-hitter Roger Cedeno's groundout put St. Louis ahead. Tony Womack and Walker added RBI singles, and another run scored on shortstop Jose Vizcaino's bounced throw before Edmonds' big double.

Berkman hit a two-run homer in the eighth and Lamb added a solo homer in the ninth.

Both teams came out swinging from their heels.

Craig Biggio led off the game with a sharp single past Williams' head and Beltran followed with a laser over the right-field wall for his fifth homer of this postseason.

Before the sellout crowd of 52,323 could get too antsy, the Cardinals took their turn and quickly tied the score.

After Womack lined out, Walker hit a drive that seemed to fool Berkman, and the ball eluded the right fielder's awkward lunge for a triple.

Pujols was up next, and he reached for an outside pitch and sent an opposite-field shot into the Cardinals' bullpen in right. The St. Louis star's third homer of this postseason was against one of his favorite victims — Backe. It was Pujols' third home run in only six lifetime at-bats against him.

That was the Cardinals' only homer, however.

"You don't have to live with the long ball," Pujols said.

When Edmonds lined a two-out single, it looked as if it might be a short night for Backe. But somehow, the converted outfielder from the Tampa Bay system quickly settled into a groove and struck out six of the next eight batters.

After Kent hit a two-run homer in the fourth for a 4-2 lead, Backe almost gave it back in the bottom half. He hit Edmonds and issued his first walk, to Edgar Renteria, bringing Garner to the mound.

Right after Garner got done patting him on the chest, Backe got Reggie Sanders to ground into an inning-ending double play on the next pitch.

Notes: Cardinals Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith threw out the first ball. ... No team from the NL Central has reached the World Series since the start of three-division play. That's guaranteed to change this year.