SAN DIEGO -- St. Louis' Tony La Russa and San Diego's Bruce Bochy are going toe-to-toe in the first round for the second straight year. With the Cardinals' pitching questions and the Padres' offensive challenges, the skippers could play a major role in who moves on to the National League Championship Series.

Ace in hand

The situation: Facing a number of scenarios to get into the playoffs, La Russa had right-handed ace Chris Carpenter available to pitch Sunday's scheduled regular-season finale against the Brewers. But that would have left Carpenter unavailable to pitch until Game 3 of the NL Division Series at the earliest.

The decision: La Russa made a calculated gamble to keep Carpenter on the shelf and use rookie Anthony Reyes.

The outcome: The Brewers knocked around Reyes for five early runs, and Carpenter actually started preparing to face the Giants in a makeup game that would have taken place Monday. But the Astros lost in Houston, handing the Cardinals the division, and Carpenter was available to dominate in Game 1 against the Padres. Now he's also available to pitch again later in the series, should he be needed.

If at first you don't succeed ...

The situation: Leading, 4-0, Juan Encarnacion singled leading off the Cardinals' half of the sixth inning but was caught stealing second by Mike Piazza, who threw out just 13 of 110 would-be basestealers in the regular season.

The decision: Ronnie Belliard followed with another single and was green-lighted for another stolen-base attempt.

The outcome: This time, Piazza's throw was late and Belliard was safe. It proved a good move when Yadier Molina -- with the pitcher on deck -- followed with a soft single to center field for a 5-0 lead.

Next!

The situation: The Padres trailed, 5-1, but started to rally when Russell Branyan tripled and Mike Cameron walked in the seventh. La Russa replaced Carpenter with lefty Tyler Johnson.

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The decision: Bochy started emptying his bench, calling on pinch-hitters Josh Bard and Mark Bellhorn to try to continue the rally.

The outcome: Johnson hit Bard on the foot with his first pitch, but Bellhorn -- who batted .190 during the regular season but .221 against lefties -- struck out. Todd Walker, who entered in an earlier double-switch, then hit an inning-ending groundout to second baseman Belliard, who made a slick play. That snuffed out what could have been a huge Padres rally.