The St. Louis Cardinals scored six runs off Greg Maddux and Atlanta's shoddy defense in the first inning and then survived rookie Rick Ankiel's epic wildness for a 7-5 victory over the Braves in their NL playoff opener Tuesday.
Ankiel, 21, was a surprise starter. He was only 11-7 in the regular season, but his 3.50 ERA led the staff and he had a 7-2 record at Busch Stadium.
La Russa even shielded Ankiel from the media on Monday, sending 20-game winner Darryl Kile to the interview room so the rookie could escape before the manager announced his rotation.
"He threw some outstanding pitches and he threw some funny ones that weren't so outstanding," La Russa said. "I mean, there's no doubt about it, he struggled."
But he didn't hesitate to say Ankiel will start again in Game 4 on Sunday.
"If we're going to win enough games, Mr. Ankiel is going to have to be there for us," La Russa said.
La Russa said Ankiel will do better after he and catcher Carlos Hernandez, who caught him for the first time, review game tapes. Ankiel wanted no part of that.
"I'm not even going to go back and look at it," Ankiel said. "Why look at something bad?"
With the help of two errors and a fly ball that dropped between Gold Glove center fielder AndruJones and left fielder Reggie Sanders for a hit, St. Louis got to Maddux in the first.
"A crazy inning where things kind of went haywire," Braves pitching coach Leo Mazzone said. "I guess that's the best way to describe it."
Maddux lasted four innings, giving up seven runs five earned and nine hits. But Maddux, who dropped to 10-11 in the postseason, didn't seem that unhappy about his outing or his stuff.
"It was good," Maddux said. "No better or worse than it's been the last couple of months."
Placido Polanco, who started ahead of slumping Fernando Tatis and went 3-for-4, hit a two-run single as the Cardinals tied a postseason record for runs in the opening inning. Jim Edmonds added a home run in the fourth.
Atlanta made three errors in all, contributing to two unearned runs, just two days after Chipper Jones' ninth-inning error cost the defending NL champions home-field advantage in the first round.
Mike James relieved Ankiel and got the final out of the third, then pitched two more innings for the win. Dave Veres worked the ninth for the save, allowing an RBI single to Brian Jordan.
"I don't care about the save," Veres said. "I wanted us to score four or five more runs in the eighth."
After a day off Wednesday, the series resumes with Kile pitching for St. Louis against Tom Glavine in a matchup of the NL's only 20-game winners, then travels to Atlanta for the weekend.
Ankiel is only the second pitcher in major league history to throw five wild pitches in an inning. On Sept. 15, 1890, Bert Cunningham did it for Buffalo of the Players League in the first inning of the second game of a doubleheader.
All but one of Ankiel's wild pitches were fastballs, most of them high over the head of Hernandez. The fifth was a curve that bounced about five feet in front of the plate.
Hernandez also made a leaping grab to prevent what would have been another.
"A couple of them were too high," Hernandez said. "If I'm Superman, maybe. But I don't think I can fly."
Ankiel threw 12 wild pitches in 175 regular-season innings. More than half (34) of his 6 pitches Tuesday were balls.
Mark McGwire, limited to one plate appearance per game because of knee pain, pinch hit in the eighth and was intentionally walked by Kerry Ligtenberg.
Atlanta was just 3-for-13 with runners in scoring position, while St. Louis was 3-for-15.
St. Louis, which took a 3-1 lead against Atlanta in the 1996 NL championship series and then lost three straight, quickly got ahead.
Fernando Vina reached on an infield single leading off, J.D. Drew singled and Edmonds' fly ball dropped next to Andruw Jones as the game's first run scored.
Will Clark's single made it 2-0 and Ray Lankford reached when his grounder bounced off the glove of third baseman Chipper Jones as another run scored.
After a sacrifice and an intentional walk, Polanco hit a two-run single to center and advanced to second when Andruw Jones' throw home hit the mound.
Catcher Paul Bako allowed another run to score when he threw wildly to second, trying to catch Polanco going for the extra base.
The third was even wilder.
Ankiel opened the inning with a four-pitch walk to Maddux, then threw a fifth ball before getting a visit from pitching coach Dave Duncan.
La Russa didn't start warming up a reliever until Jordan, the sixth batter of the inning, hit an RBI single.
Andruw Jones scored on the first wild pitch, Jordan hit an RBI single, and Walt Weiss had a two-run single.
Cardinals rookie Britt Reames, an unexpected member of the postseason staff, escaped a bases-loaded jam in the seventh when he got Reggie Sanders on a popout and pinch-hitter Bobby Bonilla on a groundout.
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