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10/13/11 1:48 AM ET

On off night, Carpenter still has enough to win

ST. LOUIS -- Even as he was in the middle of his glorious, previous playoff start, Cardinals pitching ace Chris Carpenter found himself stepping back at key times to simply enjoy the moment.

But after smelling the roses along the way to a face-down of Phillies ace Roy Halladay to end the National League Division Series, Carpenter had to spend Wednesday night -- his first start of the NL Championship Series -- smelling whatever else was in the garden.

At least Carpenter ended up smelling pleasant, thanks to a 4-3 Cards victory that gave them the series lead after three games. But it took all of Carpenter's labor not to have the night turn foul. St. Louis handed him a 4-0 lead, normally a ticket to an easy victory, but Carpenter gave up three runs and six hits while laboring through 89 pitches over five innings. He took the "W," but the bullpen had to do heavy lifting.

It was nothing like his complete-game 1-0 victory over Halladay and the Phils to end the NLDS. At least he kept his sense of enjoyment on Wednesday.

"You come there every single night, prepared to do what you need to do, confident in what your abilities are, but you never know what's going to happen," Carpenter said. "And that's what's so fun about this game, and that's what's so fun about pitching. You go out there, you have got guys on the other side grinding out at-bats, pressuring you all night long.

"You have a few infield hits, a couple of broken-bat hits, and the next thing you know, you're in trouble every single inning, and that's what makes it fun. You continue to battle and grind it out, and our guys did a fabulous job to pull it off tonight, and it's a big win for us."

The warning signs were there in the first inning, when Carpenter walked Mark Kotsay and hit Ryan Braun. Center fielder Jon Jay -- and Kotsay, himself -- bailed him out. Jay grabbed Prince Fielder's liner and doubled off Kotsay, who strayed too far from second and landed face-first during a futile slide back to the bag.

The Brewers knocked three hits and scored twice in the second, and Kotsay atoned by rifling Carpenter's first pitch of the third far over the right-field wall. From there, though, Carpenter turned ace-like, making enough key pitches to hold the lead.

Catcher Yadier Molina paid Carpenter the only compliment that mattered Wednesday -- he never cowered, even though the Brewers were hitting him.

"When you see a guy like that, a good pitcher, he's aggressive," Molina said. "Even when the fastball wasn't working, he battled."

Braun singled after the Kotsay homer, but Carpenter worked Fielder into a double play to prevent a rally. After two fifth-inning walks, one intentional to Fielder with two outs, Carpenter fanned Rickie Weeks on a foul tip with the count full.

"He left some pitches there on the plate that we did take advantage of, but he made his pitch when he had to, and he got out of a couple of jams," Kotsay said. "It was interesting that [Cardinals manager Tony La Russa] took him out there with the pitcher's spot coming up in the fifth, but Tony obviously knows 'Carp' and he knows his bullpen."

Carpenter went barely long enough to qualify for a victory, but that was longer than the starts the Cards got in the first two games from Jaime Garcia and Edwin Jackson. And after pitching one run better than Halladay in the NLDS pitching clinic, Carpenter was one run better than Brewers starter Yovani Gallardo in Wednesday's pitching struggle. It was good enough.

"He worked so hard early that [pitching coach Dave Duncan] and I [determined] there wasn't even a hesitation at inning five. Once he got that last big out, he shouldn't be pushed," La Russa said.

Relievers Fernando Salas, Lance Lynn, Mark Rzepczynski and Jason Motte pulled the Cardinals through with four perfect innings. Early in the season, when the bullpen was considered a weakness before some shrewd player moves corrected it, Carpenter could not have left a game so early with so much confidence.

"Typically, as a starting pitcher, you're concerned about that," he said. "You don't want to leave 12 outs for your bullpen. I was OK with it. I worked as hard as I could. I had confidence in my guys down there. I had confidence in what they were going to do. And they did it again."

A man who can relish outings good and mediocre can laugh at himself, also.

The victory moved Carpenter into a tie with Hall of Famer Bob Gibson for most wins in Cards postseason history, with seven. Of course, all of Gibson's postseason wins came in the World Series, and an eight-inning effort in his initial start -- an 8-3 loss to the Yankees in Game 2 in 1964 -- was his shortest. Gibson made up for that with a 10-inning win in Game 5 and a complete-game win in Game 7.

Whether Carpenter actually looked up the numbers, he knew deep down Gibson never had to find enjoyment in a laborious five-inning "W."

"I've done OK, but I'm not Bob Gibson," said Carpenter, with comfort in who he is.

Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.