JUPITER, Fla. -- It seems like the Cardinals won't be traveling to Memphis, Tenn., with 26 players after all.

Moments after their 6-3 win over the Marlins at Roger Dean Stadium on Thursday, the club informed Joe Mather he had been optioned to the Minor Leagues, making him the final cut to complete the 25-man roster for Opening Day.

Mather will be headed up with the club, too, but he'll be getting ready to begin his season with the Memphis Redbirds, the Cardinals' Triple-A affiliate.

A little less than a month ago, the 2001 third-round Draft pick looked to be the favorite to fill in for the injured Troy Glaus at third base to start the season. But the emergence of 25-year-old David Freese -- batting .386 in 15 games this spring -- coupled with Mather's struggles led to his eventual demotion.

But Cardinals manager Tony La Russa believes the 26-year-old's journey has only begun.

"He's got a lot of career ahead of him," La Russa said of Mather, who, after going 1-for-2 with an RBI on Thursday, finished his Spring Training batting just .227.

"He does everything. He just needs to give us the at-bats that he's capable of giving us."

A lot of names were in the mix as March rolled through, but in the end, it came down to Mather and Brian Barden.

Barden broke out at the plate during Spring Training, batting .386 (17-for-44) through 26 games. But it was his glove that won him the job.

Barden, going into his third Major League season, is known for being an above-average fielder at third base, shortstop and second. With the Cardinals starting Skip Schumaker -- an outfielder throughout his four-year career -- at second base, general manager John Mozeliak felt an extra solid defensive infielder off the bench would be more beneficial.

"Mather is a guy we think highly about, but when you look at the way our club looks early on -- one of the key things when you're looking down at your 24th and 25th man -- what was important was to make sure that we were secure defensively," Mozeliak said. "And that's what it came down to between him and Barden.

"[Barden] had a very good spring, but most importantly, he is a very good defensive player. And he's somebody we think -- when you look at going with somebody less experienced at second base, just trying to balance out our infield -- gives us some protection if we need it defensively."

That thought process led to a very nice 28th birthday present for Barden on Thursday.

Barden admitted his heart was at his throat when La Russa called him into his office after the game. But he let out a big sigh of relief when the Cardinals' skipper told him he'd be starting the season with the big club.

"Any time you get news like that, it's a great time in my life," Barden said. "It just took a lot of stuff off my back. It's a great feeling. I'm going to be there Opening Day, break with the team, and hopefully it's a start to a great season.

"They knew I could play defense, and that's what I was hearing -- that I needed to go out there and play defense -- and that's what they wanted out of me. And it was a plus if I go out there and hit the ball. I feel like I did that."

The move also means outfielder Colby Rasmus, along with utility players Joe Thurston and Brendan Ryan are on the club.

Considering Freese starts at third base, the Cardinals will have two lefty hitters, Thurston and Rasmus, and three righties in Barden, Ryan and Jason LaRue as reserves. But with St. Louis starting off the season playing 34 games in 35 days, La Russa hinted the lineup could fluctuate and Freese could be a power righty bat off the bench in some occasions.

Rasmus, the Cardinals' first-round Draft pick in 2005, will be on an Opening Day roster for the first time in his career after spending four years in the Minors and being the final cut in '08.

While it came down to Barden and Mather at the end, Rasmus sure helped his cause in the Cardinals' finale in Florida, as he hit his first home run of the spring and finished the day 3-for-4.

"It didn't feel like anything, I was just trying to put a good swing on it," Rasmus said about the homer. "I wasn't trying to hit a home run, but I guess it feels good."

So does starting the year with the Cardinals.