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That's an NL Central winner!
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 9      3   Final
09/20/2002 11:39 pm ET 
 Final 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 R H E
 Astros 0 0 1 0 2 0 0 0 0 3 7 0
 Cardinals 2 2 0 1 0 3 1 0 X 9 14 0
That's an NL Central winner!
By Matthew Leach / MLB.com

Albert Pujols carried Darryl Kile's jersey onto the field for the celebration. (Cardinals/Scott Rovak)
ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals came too far and overcame too much to let anything ruin their night.

St. Louis cruised past Houston by a 9-3 margin, locking up its third National League Central championship and fourth playoff appearance in the last seven seasons. The title caps a long and difficult year in which the team endured the deaths of starting pitcher Darryl Kile and Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Buck.

And Kile in particular was never far from the celebration. Albert Pujols brought a Kile jersey onto the field as players streamed out from the dugout. The jersey had a place of honor in the clubhouse afterward, and received ceremonial dousings with champagne. There was no doubt. This one was for "DK."

"I think about him a lot," said catcher Mike Matheny. "I know every guy in here does. It's hard not to. Especially when you experience something like this. It hurts not to have him here. It hurts not having him here every day, as a teammate and as a friend. But we've got a lot to be thankful for. And I'm thankful that I ever met him, thankful that I played with him, thankful that I called him a friend."

But even on this most special of nights, something had to go wrong. Nothing has ever come easy for this year's Cardinals, and their crowning as champs did not come without some bad news. Starting pitcher Woody Williams left the game after 4 2/3 innings with "tightness in his back and ribcage area," according to the team's trainer, Barry Weinberg. Williams has missed a total of three months this year with injuries in that same area.

Still, this was a release. After all that has gone wrong, something went completely, totally right. And nothing could mar it.

"I'll never forget it," said reliever Steve Kline, who closed out the game. "It's one of the best feelings ever. I'll never forget it.

"When everything's down, like the American people, when things are down, people rise to the occasion. And this team has just risen. From the front office down to the ushers, everybody here has been supporting the Cardinals."

Eli Marrero paced the St. Louis offense with four hits, including a home run, two RBIs and four runs scored. His solo homer began a three-run sixth-inning rally that put the game out of reach.

From the first inning, the game had the makings of a grand coronation. Fernando Vina, led off the game for the Cardinals with a triple, and he came home to score on Marrero's first single. Tino Martinez added a single up the middle to make it 2-0 in the first.

"That's awesome," said left fielder Albert Pujols. "He went out there and the first pitch he saw, he hit it off the wall for a triple. We scored two runs right there in the first inning and that was a good start for us. Just jump right away out there and try to put some pressure on their team."

In the second, Pujols rapped a two-run single to left for a 4-0 lead. Meanwhile, Williams was cruising. It was 5-1 in the fourth after Marrero singled, stole second and scored on a Scott Rolen single.

The Astros cut it to a two-run lead in the fifth when Brian Hunter hit a two-run homer. Two batters later, after Williams walked Lance Berkman, trainer Barry Weinberg hurried out to the mound, and shortly thereafter Williams trudged into the dugout, crestfallen.

But even with that setback, the Cardinals showed the same resiliency they've displayed all year. Marrero led off the bottom of the sixth with a homer for his fourth hit of the night. Edmonds followed with a solo shot of his own. Pujols hit a fly ball soundly to right, then Rolen connected for a solo blast.

"Everybody's hitting the ball," Rolen said. "We have a very balanced offensive team. That's the beauty of this ballclub. One guy doesn't have to carry the load. We've got guys throughout the lineup that can get it done. Whether it's the top, the middle or the bottom of the order we can get it done."

St. Louis added one more run in the seventh and the bullpen did its usual fine job, pitching the last 4 1/3 innings without allowing a run. The Cardinals will likely face Arizona in the National League Division Series for the second consecutive year.

But that was far from the minds of Cardinal nation on this night. It was all about a moment of pure joy for players, coaches and fans -- something that has been far too rare in 2002.

"One reason it's so special is there isn't one guy in this clubhouse that didn't contribute to a win," said manager Tony La Russa. "Everybody. So Taguchi got a game-winner. (Ivan) Cruz. Everybody contributed, did something."

That "everyone," of course, includes Kile and Buck, members of the Cardinal family. So before the celebration in the clubhouse got under way, La Russa asked his team to stop and remember the people who have been lost this year.

"I think a bunch of us felt it was appropriate to gather around and re-state our dedication of what we've done to Jack and Darryl," La Russa said.

"I was just trusting my gut. I think it was the thing to do. I wanted us as a group to take a minute and include Jack and Darryl. I wanted to make sure that they were included before we celebrated.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. He can be reached at Matthew_H_Leach@yahoo.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.




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BOX SCORE
St Louis Cardinals 9, Houston Astros 3
Houston Astros
BatterPosABRHRBIBBSOLOBAVG
HunterCF 5123002.288
Biggio2B 4000021.260
BerkmanRF 3000110.298
Bagwell1B 3010100.291
WardLF 4010003.278
LorettaSS 3010101.298
Blum3B 2100202.283
AusmusC 4120002.256
MunroP 1000002.143
a-ZinterPH 1000011.154
CruzP 0000000.000
b-MercedPH 0000100.295
1-HernandezPR 0000000.171
RobertsonP 0000000.000
PufferP 0000000.000
c-LanePH 1000010.291
Totals313736514
a-Struck out for Munro in the 5th. b-Walked for Cruz in the 6th. c-Struck out for Puffer in the 9th.
1-Ran for Merced in the 6th.
BATTING
HR: Hunter (3, 5th inning off Williams, 1 on, 1 out).
RBI: Hunter 3 (19).
2-out RBI: Hunter.
Runners left in scoring position, 2 out: Blum, Ward, Hunter.
GIDP: Munro, Ausmus, Loretta.
Team LOB: 7.
 
St Louis Cardinals
BatterPosABRHRBIBBSOLOBAVG
Vina2B 4210105.269
MarreroRF 4442100.261
EdmondsCF 3112112.308
PujolsLF 4012113.311
Rolen3B 5122024.268
Martinez1B 5011011.264
RenteriaSS 3010112.308
MathenyC 3120100.242
WilliamsP 2000012.207
MolinaP 0000000.000
a-CruzPH 1000011.375
VeresP 0000000.333
WhiteP 0000000.000
b-CairoPH 1010000.251
KlineP 1000002.000
Totals3691496822
a-Struck out for Molina in the 5th. b-Singled for White in the 7th.
BATTING
3B: Vina (5, Munro).
HR: Marrero (16, 6th inning off Robertson, 0 on, 0 out), Edmonds (28, 6th inning off Robertson, 0 on, 0 out), Rolen (29, 6th inning off Robertson, 0 on, 1 out).
RBI: Marrero 2 (60), Martinez (74), Pujols 2 (121), Rolen 2 (105), Edmonds 2 (81).
2-out RBI: Martinez, Pujols 2, Rolen.
S: Matheny.
SF: Edmonds.
Runners left in scoring position, 2 out: Renteria, Rolen, Vina 2, Pujols, Kline.
Team LOB: 12.
BASERUNNING
SB: Marrero (14, 2nd base off Munro/Ausmus).
FIELDING
DP: 3 (Vina-Renteria-Martinez, Martinez-Renteria, Rolen-Vina-Martinez).
Houston Astros
PitcherIPHRERBBSOHRERA
Munro (L, 5-5) 4.09553503.24
Cruz 1.00001104.46
Robertson 1.24442137.36
Puffer 1.11000104.96
St Louis Cardinals
PitcherIPHRERBBSOHRERA
Williams 4.26332312.53
Molina 0.10001001.74
Veres 1.00003003.62
White (W, 5-6) 1.00000104.27
Kline 2.01000103.64
WP: Robertson.
IBB: Marrero (by Robertson).
HBP: Renteria (by Puffer).
Pitches-strikes: Munro 89-52, Cruz 14-7, Robertson 55-33, Puffer 16-11, Williams 86-54, Molina 7-2, Veres 21-6, White 11-8, Kline 22-18.
Ground outs-fly outs: Munro 4-3, Cruz 2-0, Robertson 2-2, Puffer 3-0, Williams 9-2, Molina 0-1, Veres 2-1, White 1-1, Kline 3-2.
Batters faced: Munro 24, Cruz 4, Robertson 11, Puffer 6, Williams 21, Molina 2, Veres 5, White 3, Kline 6.
Inherited runners-scored: Puffer 2-0, Molina 1-0.
Umpires: HP: Ed Rapuano. 1B: Larry Poncino. 2B: Bruce Froemming. 3B: Anthony Randazzo.
Weather: 69 degrees, partly cloudy.
Wind: 7 mph, R to L.
T: 3:22.
Att: 34,990.

Box score official statistics approved by Major League Baseball and the Office of the Commissioner