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Cardinals wrap up division title despite loss

Oct 1, 2006 - 9:06 PM ST. LOUIS (Ticker) -- At first glance, Tony La Russa's gamble seemed to backfire. However, it paid off in the end with a division title.

The decision to hold out ace pitcher Chris Carpenter did not hurt the St. Louis Cardinals, who clinched the National League Central Division championship despite a 5-3 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers.

The Cardinals wrapped up the division crown during the fifth inning when the Houston Astros absorbed a 3-1 defeat to Atlanta. The crowd erupted in cheers when the Astros' loss was posted on the scoreboard.

"Every year it is special," Cardinals MVP candidate Albert Pujols said. "Every year you get to pop champagne is special because that's why you play. You get yourself ready in the offseason and hopefully get the opportunity to play in the postseason.

"There are eight teams now and one will be the champion. Hopefully it will be us."

It was the third straight NL Central crown for the Cardinals (83-78).

"It was tough, it was a fight every day," Cardinals third baseman Scott Rolen said. "Nothing came easy all year for us. We got the job done. It wasn't pretty at times but it's done."

St. Louis, with a 1 1/2-game lead entering Sunday, needed either a win or an Astros loss to wrap up the division. Otherwise, the Cardinals would have faced a one-game makeup game at home on Monday against the San Francisco Giants.

La Russa held Carpenter back from his scheduled start, hoping for just the scenario that unfolded in Atlanta so he would have the opportunity to pitch his No. 1 starter twice in the upcoming National League Division Series against the NL West winner San Diego on Tuesday.

"It wasn't even a tough call," La Russa said of bypassing Carpenter. "Our chance is for Chris to pitch twice in the (division) series. That couldn't happen if he pitched today so we rolled the dice and came out all right."

"I was ready to go," Carpenter said. "It wasn't my decision. (La Russa) told me I wasn't going to go and I said, 'OK, whatever you decide.'"

St. Louis appeared to have the division wrapped up 10 days ago before it was swept by Houston in a four-game series last weekend. That started a seven-game slide for the Cardinals and ignited a nine-game winning streak by the Astros that sliced the lead in the NL Central from 7 1/2 games to one-half game.

"We could have easily fell into the pressure of what was going on and everything around us," Carpenter said. "We continued to play every single day, as hard as we could, to be the best we can, and it worked out."

Anthony Reyes (5-8) got the start in place of Carpenter on Sunday and did not make it out of the first inning. The rookie righthander lasted only 26 pitches, giving up a two-run homer to Prince Fielder and a solo blast to Geoff Jenkins to put his team in a quick 4-0 hole. Reyes allowed four runs and five hits in his brief stint.

Brewers rookie Carlos Villanueva (2-2), making just his seventh start of the season, shut down the Cardinals on three hits through eight innings before allowing solo home runs to Chris Duncan and Pujols in the ninth. It was the 49th of the season for Pujols and the 250th of his six-year career.

"Today I was aggressive and went at them," said Villanueva, who threw 66 of 103 pitches for strikes. "(The Cardinals) lineup can do damage and I thrive off of that."

Francisco Cordero relieved and yielded a two-out homer to Scott Spiezio before closing it out.

Villanueva was charged with two runs and five hits in 8 1/3 innings. He struck out four and walked one.

"Everything was working for (Villanueva)," Milwaukee manager Ned Yost said. "Fastball, curveball, changeup, he spotted his pitches and he changed speeds real well."

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