HOUSTON -- It is all any team can ever ask for. The Cardinals finally have their fate in their hands.
A remarkable, improbable 13-6 win over the Astros at Minute Maid Park on Tuesday night put the Cardinals in the position they've been seeking for two months: They no longer need any outside help.
Win, and they're in. St. Louis and Atlanta are tied for the lead in the National League Wild Card race with one scheduled game left in the regular season.
If the Cards beat the Astros on Wednesday, they can do no worse than a one-game tiebreaker for the National League Wild Card. If they win Wednesday and the Braves do as well (or if both teams lose), the two teams meet on Thursday night at Busch Stadium for a one-game tiebreaker. And if the Cardinals win and Atlanta loses, the Redbirds are in the postseason for the eighth time in 12 years with no need for the tiebreaker.
"You can't ask for more," manager Tony La Russa said. "Except to win the game."
St. Louis won despite trailing by scores of 5-0 and 6-5, and despite getting just 2 1/3 innings from starter Jake Westbrook. The Cards won despite losing outfielder Matt Holliday to a hand injury in the third and losing two baserunners to on-the-money strikes from Houston right fielder Brian Bogusevic.
And in so doing, they took the next step in what has become an historic comeback. On the morning of Aug. 25, the Cardinals trailed the Braves by 10 1/2 games in the Wild Card race. Since then, they've gone 22-9 while Atlanta is 11-19.
"It's kind of fed us here the last few days," La Russa said. "One hundred twenty years of baseball, and this is one of those historic runs to tie. But there's a different story between tying and finishing it off. Tomorrow we'll see if we can go another step. But yeah, the history part of it has added to the fun."
Many of those victories have come thanks to impressive starting pitching and a reconfigured bullpen. Tuesday, however, was all about the offense -- and that bullpen.
The Cardinals hung three big innings on Houston pitching, starting with a five-run fourth that may well have saved the season. A single and two walks allowed Yadier Molina to drive in the first run. Skip Schumaker drove a three-run double that made it a game, and Jon Jay's sacrifice fly three batters later tied it up.
"They didn't give up in the last month of September," Bogusevic said, "so they're not going to lie down just because they're down a couple of runs."
The Astros squeezed out one run against Marc Rzepczynski in the fifth, but it could have been much worse. Rzepczynski loaded the bases with no outs before getting a double play and a strikeout to escape.
In the seventh, the Cards took the lead. Allen Craig's RBI double tied the score, and Ryan Theriot drilled a two-run triple for the lead. Nick Punto's RBI double padded the advantage. Neither Craig nor Theriot started the game, with Craig replacing Holliday and Theriot coming on as a pinch-hitter for Schumaker. Punto, meanwhile, was starting in place of the injured Rafael Furcal.
"Offensively, this team's capable of putting up runs," Theriot said. "That's pretty obvious. It was early in the game and we had some time to try to piece a few runs together. Fortunately we were able to get them all back in that one inning."
The Cardinals put it out of reach with more contributions from the bench brigade, as Craig hit a three-run homer in the eighth and Punto added a solo shot in the ninth. It was the 10th homer of the season for Craig and the first of the year for Punto.
By the time the Cardinals were bolstering their lead, it was evident that the win would be good enough to pull them into a tie for the Wild Card lead, as the Braves were well on their way to losing to the Phillies. The last time they had a share of a playoff position, and thus didn't need any help, was the morning of July 27. Since then, the Cardinals have endured a slump followed by a surge.
"I think we're just so focused on the day at hand," Craig said. "We focus on our job that day. I don't know if it's meant to be or not. All I know is we've made an incredible run and we've got one game left and we're going to give it our best shot. If it happens, I think it was meant to be."
The offense was more than enough for a Cards bullpen that was stout once again, highlighted by Eduardo Sanchez. The rookie retired all four batters he faced in his first game action since June.
St. Louis sends ace Chris Carpenter to the mound in Wednesday's game No. 162. If all goes well, there will be more baseball after that.
"We feel pretty good about it," Lance Berkman said. "We've been playing well. We're pretty hot right now. We've got Carp going tomorrow, so we always feel good when he's on the mound. Just see what happens. You can't try to read too much into it. Just come out, play hard and hope that we continue to swing the bats like we did tonight."
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.