SAN DIEGO -- Home-field advantage has never looked so good to the San Diego Padres and their healthy ace, Jake Peavy.
A year after being swept out of the playoffs by the St. Louis Cardinals, the NL West champion Padres get another shot at Chris Carpenter and the NL Central champions. This time, the first two games will be at Petco Park, starting today at 4 p.m. (ESPN). If needed, Game 5 also will be played here.
``You know, we need to get the series off to a good start these first two games and hopefully get into St. Louis with a chance to clinch it," Peavy said yesterday after the Padres held a workout at their downtown ballpark.
Besides the 1984 World Series, the Padres have never started a postseason series at home.
They'd love to follow the script the Cardinals used in sweeping the Padres twice since 1996 in the division series -- win two at home, then clinch on the road. Last year the Cardinals pummeled former teammate Woody Williams in Game 3 at Petco Park. In 1996, Brian Jordan made a spectacular diving catch in the eighth inning of the third game, then hit a two-run homer off Trevor Hoffman in the ninth, with the ball landing in a palm tree beyond the left-field fence.
A year ago, besides having a much better team, the Cardinals benefited from Peavy pitching with two broken ribs. Peavy hurt himself when he jumped on Hoffman's head while celebrating the Padres' division title several days earlier, then fell behind, 8-0, in the playoff opener.
Peavy, who has been prone to freak injuries the past two seasons, said he's healthy.
``I'm feeling a lot better than I was last year," the 25-year-old righthander said. ``You know, no excuses. This time out I feel as good as I've felt all year. The first half was a bit of a struggle, but the second half, I've been healthy, making my starts without any interference physically."
Or at least the Padres hope.
``With Jake, we always wait until right before the game to make sure he's OK," manager Bruce Bochy said.
Peavy was an uncharacteristic 11-14 with a 4.09 ERA this season. His unsightly numbers were due in part to shoulder tendinitis early in the season and a lack of run support from an offense that's prone to disappearing at inopportune times.
The Padres are used to doing things the hard way. It took them until the final inning of the regular season to clinch their second straight division title.
They'll take it, though, especially since it means playing in front of the home fans who got all revved up just more than a week ago cheering Hoffman as he tied and then broke Lee Smith's all-time saves record.
``You start the playoffs with a team like St. Louis last year, and you walk into the ballpark to a sea of red, and already right there it's an advantage for the home team," said Dave Roberts, the Padres' leadoff hitter and left fielder. ``We expect the same for us this year."
San Diego is in the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time ever. It's also trying to win a game in October for the first time since winning the 1998 NL pennant. San Diego was swept by the New York Yankees in the 1998 World Series, missed the playoffs for six straight seasons, then was swept by St. Louis last year.
For most of the season, the Padres played better on the road than at spacious Petco Park, where drives that would be homers at other ballparks are just long outs. But the Padres played much better during their last four homestands.
St. Louis, on the other hand, looks a lot like the Padres did last year. The Cardinals lost front-line players to injuries and were 83-78, losing nine of their last 12 as they backed into their third straight division title.
``It's tough," said shortstop David Eckstein, who has been bothered by a strained left hamstring. ``You want to play well and unfortunately we didn't play that good. But the bottom line is we were able to come through in the end."
San Diego won four of six this year against the Cardinals, including taking two of three at St. Louis last week. In the one loss last week, the Padres got a good reminder of how dangerous Albert Pujols can be. The slugger hit an impressive three-run homer off rookie sidearmer Cla Meredith with two outs in the eighth inning last Wednesday night for a 4-2 Cardinals win.
Bochy said he'll let game situations dictate whether the Padres pitch to Pujols or walk him.
``Obviously when you have a hitter of that caliber, you're hoping not to make any mistakes," Bochy said. ``We're going to play to win every game. If that means pitching to him or putting him on, we'll do what we think we need to do to win that game."
Carpenter will reprise his role as Game 1 starter against Peavy.
``I can't wait," Carpenter said. ``This is what it's all about."