ST. LOUIS -- If 2011 started on Wednesday for the Cardinals, the early returns look good.
P.J. Walters pitched seven sparkling innings and Allen Craig homered and doubled, propelling St. Louis to a 4-1 win over the Pirates at Busch Stadium on a spectacularly sunny, mild early-fall afternoon. Playing with a stopgap starter and a day-after-elimination lineup, the Cards made quick work of the Buccos to finish off the penultimate series of the 2010 season.
Of the nine players who started for St. Louis, seven played for Triple-A Memphis at some point this season, including both Walters and Craig. Regulars Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, Skip Schumaker and Brendan Ryan all got the afternoon off, as the Cardinals played their first game after being officially eliminated from playoff contention.
Walters was inserted in the rotation initially to give the Cards' regular starters an extra day of rest, but ultimately turned out to be needed when Adam Wainwright was shut down due to an elbow issue. With the St. Louis bullpen also doing without some usually available pitchers, Walters was going to stay in the game for a good long while, regardless of how he pitched.
Fortunately, he was excellent.
"I wish I could explain to you what he did today," manager Tony La Russa told reporters after the game. "In every way possible -- if we had had a full rotation and 100 percent bullpen, the game he pitched, against that lineup -- they've been scoring a lot of runs -- was a gem. To do it as short as we were and win the series? I don't think you can over-exaggerate it. That was really impressive."
The victory was St. Louis' 82nd of the season, securing a winning record. It's the fourth straight year and 10th in the past 11 that the Cardinals have finished above .500. The Cardinals have won more than they lost in 12 of La Russa's 15 seasons at the helm. The string of winning seasons is the franchise's second longest since 1970, trailing a streak of seven in a row from 2000-2006.
"You can't be too cool for school here," La Russa said. "Having a winning record, this is a tough league. ... It's not like we're celebrating, popping champagne. But you don't want to take things for granted or not acknowledge something that's got some worth."
Walters was exceptional in his fourth career big league start, leaning heavily on a fastball-changeup combination to keep the Pirates at bay. He struck out four, walked one and allowed three hits over seven shutout frames, needing a mere 80 pitches to last that long. Walters' efficiency was a godsend, allowing him to blow well past his previous Major League career high of five innings pitched.
It's unclear what role Walters will have on the 2011 Cardinals, but he will likely come to Spring Training with a chance to earn a spot in the bullpen or conceivably at the back of the starting rotation. He certainly didn't punch his ticket on Wednesday, but neither did he hurt his cause.
"I go into the offseason with a positive attitude," Walters said. "I finished strong. I think that's what everybody wants to do. So being able to finish the way I did is good to me."
On the offensive side, Craig continued to state his case as well. The rookie outfielder poked a leadoff double in the second inning, but was stranded. So he took care of things on his own in the fourth, drilling a solo home run for the game's first run. Since being recalled from Memphis earlier this month, Craig has 10 hits, including four for extra bases, in eight games.
Tyler Greene later scored on some small ball. Greene singled, took second on a wild pitch and third on a groundout, then scored on Aaron Miles' two-out single. Greene had two hits on the day, as did Mark Hamilton, the first two knocks of the rookie first baseman's career.
Kyle McClellan and Ryan Franklin took over from Walters and finished off the game, as the Cardinals finished the season series against the Pirates with a 9-6 advantage.
"We swung the bat terrible today," said Pirates manager John Russell. "We picked it up a little bit late, but it was too late. We didn't swing the bat well at all. [Walters] made some good pitches, but we didn't do a very good job."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.