HOUSTON • Thirty-five days before, they had gathered inside a muted home clubhouse at Busch Stadium to pick one another up from a three-game sweep that had tattered their season and driven many outside the walls to question their worthiness, even their fortitude.
The message was simple: Even if others had written off their season, the larger disappointment would occur if they, as players, followed.
Wednesday night before 24,358 at Minute Maid Park, the Cardinals offered final testimony to that Aug. 24 meeting by disposing of the 106-loss Houston Astros in matter-of-fact fashion, 8-0, then claiming the National League wild card when the Atlanta Braves completed their epic collapse more than an hour later.
"You prepare for the worst and hope for the best," said manager Tony La Russa. "Right now, this is the best."
The Cardinals ambushed the Astros with a five-run first inning, then drafted behind a dominant, two-hit performance by starting pitcher Chris Carpenter (11-9). The Philadelphia Phillies' win over the Braves creates a Division Series pairing of the Cardinals and a Phillies team that won 102 games but only three of nine against the Redbirds.
"I thought we were one of the best teams in the National League the entire year. We just never put it together," said second baseman Skip Schumaker, who provided five RBIs in the Cardinals' last two wins. "I think we have that chance now."
The Cardinals became the fourth team since realignment to overcome a double-digit deficit to capture the wild card. To get there, they crafted their second 90-win season in three years.
"We knew we had a lot of talent. We just committed to playing hard and to see what happened. And this is what happened," said center fielder Jon Jay.
A team that spent most of August in a funk danced on champagne-soaked carpet for more than 45 minutes after the Phillies finished the Braves in 13 innings. The Rafael Furcal-inspired anthem, "Happy flight! Happy flight!" filled the room as one by one players sought out La Russa for a hug. An impromptu hit squad was assigned to douse general manager John Mozeliak, whose combination of moves approaching the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline salvaged the season.
"We felt like we played more relaxed this month than in any other month," Schumaker said. "We're having fun. We're trying to do our best and see what happens. We haven't pressed. And I don't think we're going to press in the playoffs. A lot of us have been here before. We're going to give it our best shot and see what happens. We've got an extremely tough task ahead of us, but I like our chances."
Wednesday night served as final validation to the trades for starting pitcher Edwin Jackson, relievers Marc Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel, shortstop Furcal and outfielder Corey Patterson. Lefthanded reliever Arthur Rhodes was obtained later as a free agent. A team that labored for traction following its 37-25 start found itself at only 67-63 after the Dodger fiasco. However, the Cardinals have since lost consecutive games only twice and avoided a three-game losing streak.
"The move may have not been popular to many. But I don't think there's any question that we're not standing here celebrating without them," said chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., referring to the July 27 deal that sent center fielder Colby Rasmus and veteran relievers Trever Miller and Brian Tallet to the Toronto Blue Jays for a four-player package.
"We were 10½, 9½ out. But we kept telling ourselves we had a good chance," offered first baseman Albert Pujols. "This is probably the best group of guys we've had and adding those guys brought a little different energy we needed in the clubhouse. We just went out there and had fun."
"You enjoy this," said catcher Yadier Molina, an offensive force during the team's six-week drive. "The way we came back, this is awesome."
Recent weeks revealed a less rigid clubhouse environment. Dotel offered a boisterous, durable presence. The 40-something Rhodes is a low-key instigator. Furcal fit easily between Pujols' and Molina's lockers.
"It was about not embarrassing ourselves," Carpenter said when reflecting upon last month's players meeting. "It was about 'Let's go out and play hard. Stop pushing so hard. Let's go play and let our talent come out. Even if we don't win because of how Milwaukee and Atlanta played, at least we won't embarrass ourselves as a ballclub. We wanted to give something to the fans. It's been a pleasure to be part of it all year."
"I don't think anybody outside of our clubhouse gave us a chance then," recalled Nick Punto, Wednesday's shortstop. "To be honest, there were probably people in our clubhouse who didn't give us much of a chance. But we never quit on ourselves. This is the reward."
The Cardinals (90-72) immediately removed all suspense Wednesday by taking a 3-0 lead before making their first out and strong-arming a 5-0 edge before Carpenter threw his first pitch.
The rest was details as Carpenter threw a seamless 106-pitch complete game that paused for only one walk.
After opening the game with five consecutive hits, the Cardinals kept after Astros starter Brett Myers (7-14) for 10 hits before the home club reached Carpenter for its second.
After rallying from a five-run deficit to win Tuesday, the Cardinals constructed their most prolific first inning of the season Wednesday en route to their 18th September win. The reward was twofold: Carpenter's complete game offered an extra day's rest to a taxed bullpen, and the full squad receives today off before traveling to Philadelphia Friday morning.
They also won with their pitching coach, Dave Duncan, in attendance for the first time since Aug. 19.
A team that slouched from the field five weeks before embraced each other as it exited Wednesday. Carpenter paused long enough to embrace La Russa, whose message he helped relay during that August meeting.
The Cardinals last led the NL Central July 25 and found themselves trailing the Braves by 10½ games for the wild card after being outscored by the Dodgers 24-7 during a seemingly ruinous Aug. 22-24 series.
Coincidence or not, the Cardinals followed their clubhouse meeting with a 23-9 rush in which they captured nine of 10 series, including three-game sweeps of the Braves and the division champion Milwaukee Brewers.
Spending five weeks on the edge gave way to Wednesday's quickie beatdown.
During a 10-hitter rally, the Cardinals produced five hits in Myers' first 22 pitches. Five players contributed a first-inning RBI, beginning with Pujols and ending with shortstop Nick Punto, fresh off Tuesday's four-hit game.
Carpenter, who opened the season 1-7, closed with a 10-2 run beginning June 23. He offered a vintage performance against an overmatched lineup that managed nothing more than a lone single in the fourth and sixth innings. The Astros pushed only one runner to second base and never reached third. Carpenter reached the eighth inning in 92 pitches.
Jay, Allen Craig, Pujols, Lance Berkman and David Freese created a staccato first-inning attack that left Myers irritated and brought manager Brad Mills to the mound.
Carpenter entered the start with 2281/3 innings and left with his fifth straight outing of at least seven innings. Carpenter allowed five runs combined in that span, which included three shutout performances.
The Cardinals bumped their lead to 6-0 with an unearned run in the third inning and added on in the fifth when Freese moved around on consecutive ground balls after leading off with a double.
Craig, who generated four RBIs after entering Tuesday's game in the fourth inning, smacked his second home run in as many nights and 11th of the season to account for the final margin.
While the offense generated double-digit hits, Carpenter amassed a season-most 11 strikeouts his first three times through the Astros order. He worked as a steamroller, taking the ball and quickly feeding it back to Molina against a lineup barely there. Carpenter allowed himself a brief indulgence during the seventh inning when, hearing a buzz from the healthy contingent of Cardinals fans behind the third-base dugout, he dropped the ball and stole a glance at the left-field scoreboard that read: PHI 3, ATL 3.
Duncan approached Carpenter to inquire how he felt following the seventh inning. Carpenter's answer was as simple as it was telling: "Fabulous."
Carpenter entered the ninth inning at 98 pitches, but the Astros seemed glad to play along with only mild resistance that helped him toward his fourth complete game and second shutout of the season.
The game ended with the Braves and Phillies in extra innings and fans for the visiting club overwhelming any resistance by the home crowd. The Cardinals then repaired to the players' lounge, reacting pitch by pitch to an outcome that touched off emotion unthinkable five weeks earlier.