Insiders - La Russa Makes The Right Move

The Cardinals backed into their third consecutive National League Central title Sunday when, even though they lost 5-3 to the Brewers, the pursuing Astros fell 3-1 at Atlanta.

In defeat, the Cardinals got away with a calculated gamble by manager Tony La Russa, who pulled staff ace Chris Carpenter from his scheduled outing and opened with rookie right-hander Anthony Reyes instead. Reyes was knocked out in a four-run first inning, but, with the Astros' loss, Carpenter, who would have had to pitch a makeup game with San Francisco on Monday, will be able to start Tuesday's National League playoff series opener at San Diego. He will be able to pitch twice in the five-game series instead of once.

Given that the Cardinals have lost nine of their last 12 games, it was imperative that they have him available for two starts in the series, even though Carpenter has suffered two of the team's nine recent defeats.

--1B Albert Pujols hit one of the Cardinals' three solo homers Sunday. His ninth-inning shot was his 49th of the season.

--The Cardinals finished with a 39-42 record in their division after going 50-31 last year and 52-29 the year before.

--CF Jim Edmonds sat out Sunday's game. Edmonds, who has been bothered by post-concussion syndrome, was nursing a hyperextended foot.

--SS David Eckstein, recovering from a left hamstring strain on top of a strained left oblique muscle, was kept out of the lineup Sunday.

--The division championship was manager Tony La Russa's seventh in his 11 seasons with the Cardinals.

BY THE NUMBERS: 23 -- Number of games the Cardinals lost in three long winless streaks (8, 8 and 7).

QUOTE TO NOTE: "This is the most huge of the huge ones he's had." -- Manager Tony La Russa, on 1B Albert Pujols' game-winning homer Sept. 27 to beat San Diego 4-2 and end a seven-game losing streak.

Right-hander Jeff Suppan, who has been the Cardinals' (and one of the league's) best pitchers since the All-Star break, figures to get the Game 2 start, although it might go to right-hander Jeff Weaver, who has won four games on the road and just one at home since joining the Cardinals before the All-Star break.

Right-hander Jason Marquis will be jettisoned from the rotation, and Reyes might be the fourth starter, although Sunday's outing wasn't much of an endorsement.

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