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Must C Clinch: The Cardinals claim the NL Wild Card

HOUSTON -- The only drama at Minute Maid Park on Wednesday night was taking place about 700 miles to the northeast. On the field in Houston, everything went the Cardinals' way. About 75 minutes after that, so did events in Atlanta.

As the Braves and Phillies played a cliffhanger, Chris Carpenter and the Cardinals did their part at Minute Maid Park. Carpenter dominated the Astros, and his offense gave him five runs before he even took the mound in an 8-0 drubbing of Houston. Atlanta then lost, 4-3, to Philadelphia in 13 innings to give St. Louis the National League Wild Card.

The Cardinals have completed one of the greatest comebacks in baseball history. On the morning of Aug. 25, they trailed the Braves by 10 1/2 games in the NL Wild Card race, and were 10 behind the Brewers in the NL Central. Since then, they've gone 23-9, while Atlanta went 11-20. They begin the National League Division Series against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on Saturday.

Manager Tony La Russa set up his rotation nearly a month earlier with an eye on Carpenter pitching the last day of the season. When it turned out that the Redbirds needed that game to get into October, the decision looked brilliant. Carpenter looked like the big-game pitcher his reputation has long held him to be, pitching his team into the postseason.

Out of the six full seasons Carpenter has pitched for the Cardinals, the club has made the postseason five times.

"Tony and [pitching coach Dave Duncan] set it up to where if we came to this game and we needed it, we'd have Carp on the mound," said third baseman David Freese. "And we can't ask for anything more than to have an outing like his and to jump on their guy like we did."

It's the Cardinals' second time as the Wild Card, following a 2001 tie with the Astros. Houston was designated the NL Central champion based on head-to-head record, while the Cardinals were designated the Wild Card, though the organization considers that year a co-championship. It's St. Louis' eighth postseason bid in 12 years, and ninth in La Russa's 16 years at the helm.

Playing in front of a predominantly pro-Cardinals crowd, the visitors dispensed with the Astros with cold efficiency, both offensively and defensively. They started the game with four straight singles and a double, followed by an out and two more singles, to lead 5-0 at the end of half an inning.

That was more than enough for Carpenter, who was untouchable in pitching his fourth complete game and second shutout of the year. He didn't allow a hit until the fourth, walked one batter all night and struck out 11. It was the 33rd complete game and 15th shutout of his big league career.

He took advantage of a young and aggressive Astros lineup, getting early swings and quick outs en route to an efficient outing. Carpenter needed 106 pitches to finish the game, 75 of them strikes (more than 70 percent).

"My stuff was good," he said. "No question. I was commanding my cutter pretty well, commanding my fastball really well to both sides of the plate, keeping it down. I was able to throw my breaking ball when I wanted to. When you work ahead and get ahead against some of these young guys who are obviously trying to prove something to their guys over there... you can make them swing. I was able to do that."

St. Louis added single runs in the third, fifth and ninth, but it simply didn't matter. The Astros had no chance against Carpenter, and Carpenter wasn't going to give way to his bullpen under almost any circumstances.

"Every time we came in the dugout, we were trying to tack on more," Freese said. "'Let's go, let's go.' We knew what was at stake. We knew what we had to do to put ourselves in a situation to get in the playoffs."

Following the victory, the Cardinals watched the end of the Phillies-Braves game from Atlanta in the clubhouse rather than boarding a flight. When Philadelphia finished off the Braves, giving St. Louis the playoff berth, the team erupted and a champagne celebration was under way.

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