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09/29/11 4:01 AM ET

'Happy Flight' for Cards ends with Wild Card

HOUSTON -- They gathered around televisions all over the visiting clubhouse at Minute Maid Park, suffering with every pitch. The Cardinals had done their job. Now they were living and dying with the actions of players 700 miles away.

If a Phillies hitter took a hittable strike, they yelled their disapproval. When the home plate umpire gave a favorable call to the Phils, they cheered.

They exulted when Hunter Pence's dying quail of a single fell in for the Phillies' go-ahead run against the Braves, pulling them ever closer to their coveted playoff berth. They squirmed a little when Dan Uggla walked, putting the tying run on base.

Finally, about 75 minutes after the Cardinals had dusted off the Astros with an 8-0 win at Minute Maid Park, they saw what they'd been waiting to see. With a runner on and one out, Freddie Freeman grounded into a game-ending double play, making the remarkable Redbirds one of the most improbable playoff teams in history. St. Louis rallied from 10 1/2 games back in late August to earn its eighth postseason berth in 12 years.

The clubhouse absolutely erupted, with joy, shock, relief and excitement. Forty or so grown men hooted and hollered like little boys, drenched each other with champagne and beer and chanted their trademark slogan, "Happy flight!" It's what they yell in the clubhouse when getaway day ends with a win -- but no getaway day has been quite like this one.

"This is awesome," said Kyle Lohse, who would have started a one-game tiebreaker if one had been needed. "This is a lot of pent-up stuff going on right now. We've been backs against the wall for a month. To be able to come out like this is great."

It was a celebration eight months in the making, and one that five weeks ago looked like it might never happen.

On the morning of Aug. 25, the Cardinals were 10 1/2 behind Atlanta and 10 games behind the Brewers in the National League Central. They had dropped to four games over .500 following a sweep at the hands of the Dodgers, and their manager, Tony La Russa, was genuinely afraid they might finish with a losing record.

Instead, they surged while the Braves stumbled. The Cards took three out of four from Pittsburgh, then swept the rival Brewers. They slipped a bit against the Reds, but rebounded with a series win against Milwaukee, followed by the season's defining weekend: a sweep of the Braves at home that pulled them within 4 1/2.

"Once we got within hailing distance, the game of baseball is what it is," La Russa said. "We kept doing things that gave us a chance. A winning record against winning clubs. We just kept cranking out extra wins, and it made the thing look better and better."

From there, the chase was on. On Tuesday, the Cards cornered their quarry, tying Atlanta with one game remaining. On Wednesday, they finished the deal, securing their second Wild Card berth since the format was introduced.

"We've been playing playoff scenario baseball for the last couple weeks," said third baseman David Freese. "I think when this is all over this year, whenever that is, I'll look back and realize exactly what kind of run we went on."

The run reminded a couple of Cardinals of teams they've been on in the past. Matt Holliday was a member of the 2007 Rockies, who surged into the playoffs and then roared all the way to the World Series. Lance Berkman was on a couple of different Astros teams that came on strong, including a 2004 club that was four games under .500 in mid-August but went on to win the Wild Card.

"I've been on historic runs before, maybe not coming from 10 back," Berkman said. "I don't want to say it's old hat, but when you get on a roll like that, you know that anything is possible. There are so many similarities between the '04 team that was able to come way back and this team."

Following their celebration, the Cardinals headed to the airport for a flight home to St. Louis. They'll take a day to breathe a bit, then fly to Philadelphia and work out at Citizens Bank Park on Friday before Game 1 of the NLDS on Saturday. They're in the tournament, and that's all they could have asked for.

"Something historic needed to happen," said second baseman Skip Schumaker. "Atlanta needed to fall. We needed to have the best month we've ever had since I've been here as a Cardinal, and it happened. Finally, it happened. We thought it could happen every single month, and it just never did. We've taken hit after hit all year, and we deserve this. This is more gratifying than anything to me."

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.