Ahh, payback is sweet.
The Cardinals avenged a 4-year-old postseason loss with a 7-1 victory over Atlanta on Saturday, sweeping the Braves out of the opening round of the playoffs with shocking ease.
Jim Edmonds and Fernando Vina drove in three runs apiece as the Cardinals completed a three-game blitz in the best-of-five series. St. Louis advanced to the NL championship series for the first time since 1996.
"I didn't think it would take this long to get back at them," said Ray Lankford, one of three St. Louis holdovers from '96. "But it was worth it."
Four years ago, the Cardinals squandered a 3-1 lead over Atlanta, which won the final three games of the NLCS by a combined score of 32-1. St. Louis turned things around in the rematch, blowing out the Braves by an aggregate of 24-10.
Not this time. Atlanta got just three singles in the finale, and the biggest cheers at Turner Field were for Mark McGwire, who grounded out as a pinch-hitter in the eighth.
"I told you guys! I told you guys!" Will Clark screamed while spraying bubbly in the raucous Cardinals clubhouse. "We just kept getting better and better."
Atlanta, making a ninth straight playoff appearance, will miss the NLCS fothe first time since 1990. The Cardinals open Wednesday night, either at San Francisco or at home against the New York Mets.
The St. Louis Cardinals completed a sweep of their NL division series against the Atlanta Braves with a 7-1 win Saturday. (CBS SportsLine)
"Everybody still wants to play," said Kevin Millwood, who took the loss for Atlanta. "But we ran into a hot ballclub that played better baseball than we did. Now we get to watch."
After Paul Bako ended the game by striking out, the Cardinals hopped up and down in the center of the field, thousands of their fans crowded behind the third-base dugout.
"They're always here with us," Edmonds said. "They're a part of our lives."
For the third time in four years, the Braves watched another team celebrate a playoff victory on their field. Florida clinched the NLCS in Atlanta in 1997, followed by San Diego in '98.
"We've seen it a few times here," Chipper Jones said. "Until it (ticks) us off, we're going to keep on seeing it."
St. Louis set the tone for the series by scoring six runs in the first inning of Game 1, going on to a 7-5 victory over four-time Cy Young winner Greg Maddux.
The Cardinals followed with a 10-4 rout Thursday, handing 21-game winner Tom Glavine his shortest outing in seven years.
In Game 3, St. Louis struck another stunning blow on the second pitch from Millwood a high fastball that Vina lined into the first row of the right-field stands.
During the regular season, the Cardinals second baseman hit only four homers.
Then, with the score tied at 1, Edmonds went to work to chants of "M-V-P! M-V-P!" from the red-clad Cardinals fans who filled out the less-than-sellout crowd at Turner Field.
In the third, he pounced on a 2-0 fastball from Millwood for a two-run homer. Edmonds stood at the plate for a few seconds to admire hitowering, 418-foot shot into the Braves' right-field bullpen.
Edmonds knocked out Millwood with a two-out, run-scoring double in the fifth that was misplayed by left fielder Reggie Sanders. For the series, the Cardinals outfielder was 8-of-14 (.571) and set a division series record with four doubles.
"I'm so glad for him," La Russa said. "He had a huge season and I'm happy he could do it in October, too."
The Braves were buried when St. Louis scored three more in the sixth, prompting a serenade of boos before fans began clogging the exits. Vina had a two-run single against Mike Remlinger.
"Fernando set the table up all series long," Clark said, "and Jimmy came along and mopped it up."
Until this year, the Braves had reached the NLCS eight seasons in a row (excluding strike-shortened 1994) and went on to the World Series five times.
But as remarkable as the postseason streak has been, Atlanta remains stuck on just one World Series championship.
"We've been trying to figure out why that is until we're blue in the face," Glavine said. "We want to win as much as anybody."
The Braves have lost seven straight postseason games going back to a sweep by the Yankees in last year's World Series.
But that team overachieved after losing Andres Galarraga and Javy Lopez. The two sluggers returned this year, only to be part of a total collapse in the last 1 1/2 weeks.
The Braves closed the regular season by losing four of five - including a ninth-inning debacle in the finale that cost home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Leading Colorado 5-3, Jones botched a grounder to third that should have ended the game. The Rockies took advantage of the error to score seven runs, including a three-run homer by Todd Helton on an 0-2 pitch from John Rocker.
The Braves never recovered.
St. Louis starter Garrett Stephenson, bothered by tendinitis the last month, lasted only 3 2-3 innings before he was forced out with a stiff elbow. He gave up Galarraga's RBI single in the first for the only Atlanta run.
La Russa said Stephenson would be evaluated in St. Louis. His status for the rest of the playoffs was uncertain, but he was clearly upset when he left te field.
The Braves were hitless over the final 5 1-3 innings against four St. Louis relievers, including winner Britt Reames.
"You don't win 90-plus games without getting great pitching out of your bullpen," La Russa said.
In the middle of the fifth, the video board showed highlights of a shining moment in Atlanta's postseason history - Sid Bream scoring the winning run in the 1992 NLCS.
The crowd hardly noticed.
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