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10/20/11 2:09 AM ET

Cardinals pocket victory they wanted badly

ST. LOUIS -- Seldom has Game 1 of a World Series held the importance for a team that Wednesday night's opener did for St. Louis.

For the Cardinals, it was virtually a "must" win against the favored Texas Rangers.

When Matt Holliday squeezed Nelson Cruz's fly ball for the final out at chilly Busch Stadium, St. Louis had done more than seal a tense 3-2 victory over the American League champions. It had won behind its ace, Chris Carpenter, which might not define this World Series, but it sent a strong message to Texas.

Any other result with Carpenter on the mound, even though it was the first game, would have put St. Louis in a difficult position. Regardless of the eventual outcome, it's difficult to minimize the importance of the victory.

Had the Rangers been able to knock off the former National League Cy Young Award winner, they would have garnered the momentum teams seek in the best-of-seven tournament.

And also put a huge dent in the Cardinals' confidence.

You'll get an argument from manager Ron Washington and the Rangers, but the veteran Carpenter is truly the only "ace" in this 107th World Series.

"The thing about Carp, he was exactly what we needed," said St. Louis skipper Tony La Russa, who once again used his managerial wizardry, pushing the right buttons at every turn.

Carpenter gave the Cardinals six strong innings, the only blemish a screaming two-run homer by Mike Napoli in the fifth inning that pulled the Rangers even at 2.

"It was a great performance," La Russa said of Carpenter, who allowed five hits. "They're a great hitting team. If you don't make a lot of pitches, they're going to bang you around."

With runners on first and third, two outs and the score tied at 2 in the bottom of the sixth, Carpenter was lifted for pinch-hitter Allen Craig.

The winner of Game 1 of the World Series has won 12 of the last 14 and 13 of 16 in the Wild Card era.
Year Game 1 winner World champions
2010 Giants Giants in 5
2009 Phillies Yankees in 6
2008 Phillies Phillies in 5
2007 Red Sox Red Sox in 4
2006 Cardinals Cardinals in 5
2005 White Sox White Sox in 4
2004 Red Sox Red Sox in 4
2003 Marlins Marlins in 6
2002 Giants Angels in 7
2001 D-backs D-backs in 7
2000 Yankees Yankees in 5
1999 Yankees Yankees in 4
1998 Yankees Yankees in 4
1997 Marlins Marlins in 7
1996 Braves Yankees in 6
1995 Braves Braves in 6

Washington countered, replacing starter C.J. Wilson with Alexi Ogando. Craig ripped a single toward the right-field line, and David Freese scored from third, vaulting the Cards ahead, 3-2, and paving the way for Carpenter's victory. It also made Carpenter the winning pitcher for the eighth time in his postseason career, moving him ahead of Bob Gibson for the Cardinals' franchise record.

"Playing a team like Texas, you love to get off to a start like this," said Freese, the NL Championship Series MVP. "We've gone through two teams prior to the World Series where you definitely want to grab that first one."

Carpenter was with St. Louis in 2006, when it defeated Detroit to win the World Series. He remembered Wednesday how important it was to win the first game.

"I remember the confidence level that our ballclub had going into Game 2, knowing we were facing Kenny Rogers," Carpenter said. "It really didn't matter what happened, to be honest with you. I remember getting on the bus and everybody was like, 'Whatever, it's 1-1 and we're going back to our place.'"

Rogers and the Tigers won Game 2 that year, 7-2 -- the only Detroit win -- as the Cardinals won three straight in St. Louis to take the Fall Classic.

Carpenter doesn't agree winning Wednesday night is what he called the defining factor of the World Series.

"Absolutely not," he said. "But I do remember the confidence level that we had after winning one game, especially Game 1 in their place."

Lance Berkman, who singled in the first two St. Louis runs in the fourth inning, said, "When [Carpenter] takes the mound, we feel like we're going to win the game every time. I think when that comes true, it just builds. You have confidence when he takes the mound already, and then the job that he's done this postseason has built that confidence. You certainly want to win the games that your ace pitches."

Once Carpenter was gone, La Russa once again used his bullpen to perfection, parading five relievers to shut down the Rangers.

The Cards' skipper started the eighth inning with Octavio Dotel, who got the first two outs, then summoned Arthur Rhodes.

Dotel and Rhodes have 33 years of Major League service, and they made their World Series debuts back to back in the same inning.

Berkman said it's impossible to underestimate the importance of Wednesday's win.

"Whenever you have an opportunity to win a game at home especially, it's important that you go ahead and do that," Berkman said.

"I thought we put ourselves in a position to win, and if somehow you let them come back and win that game, psychologically, it's tough."

As must-wins go, this was high on the list for the Cardinals.

The bottom line: The winners of Game 1 of the World Series have won 12 of the past 14 and 13 of 16 in the Wild Card era.

Hal Bodley is the senior correspondent for MLB.com; he's covering his 47th World Series. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.