If St. Louis can beat Houston behind Chris Carpenter on Wednesday, it will be assured of at least a one-game playoff with the free-falling Braves for the National League Wild Card berth. A win coupled with an Atlanta loss and the Redbirds will have completed a mesmerizing comeback from 10 1/2 games back as recently as Aug. 25.
Should a tiebreaker be necessary, the two clubs will meet at Busch Stadium for Thursday's one-game playoff, slated for 7:07 CT.
Cardinals skipper Tony La Russa couldn't help but relish in the historic nature of his team's late surge, but is hoping it can take it one step further.
"That's exactly the word," he said. "It's kind of fed us here the last few days. 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. [Wednesday] we'll see if we can go another step."
"It's unbelievable," said St. Louis infielder Nick Punto, who was 4-for-5 with two RBIs on Tuesday. "The part that's hard about these games is ... 7:05 tomorrow night, that's when it gets easy. It's leading up to that, the nerves, the energy, walking around the clubhouse for five hours waiting for that game to start."
St. Louis couldn't feel any better about the man they're sending to the mound in the biggest game of the season. Carpenter has played a significant role in his club's late-September push, allowing just one earned in 15 combined innings over his last two starts with 10 strikeouts and three walks. He has also been a source of depth and durability, having averaged 7 2/3 innings per start over his last four outings.
A season-ending matchup with the Astros was perceived to be in the Cardinals' favor, but the task gets no easier on Wednesday. Red-hot Brett Myers is in a position to win his fifth consecutive September start, and possibly end the Redbirds' season.
Myers is 4-0 with a 1.23 ERA in four starts this month, with 21 strikeouts and just three walks. His recent run follows a comparatively colder August in which he went 0-2 with a 5.50 ERA in six appearances (five starts). Yet, despite his September success, Myers could be the right elixir for the Cardinals. Myers is just 0-2 with a 5.14 ERA in two starts against St. Louis this season, and 7-13 with a 4.31 ERA for his career.
First baseman Brett Wallace acknowledged that playing the spoiler role could have a lasting positive effect for the young Astros.
"It's a division rival, and with so many young guys, we just take it as it's another series that we can go out there and try to take a series from them and finish a season on a high note," Wallace said. "Maybe we can go into the offseason with a little bit of momentum and energy for the team. It would be a big accomplishment for us to come back out there tomorrow and hopefully get a lead and play a spoiler and see how it goes."
"With everybody, we'll keep it going as much as we can and get as many guys out there as we can. It will be all hands on deck," added Astros manager Brad Mills.
Cardinals: Injuries sideline key bats
The Cardinals' push to the Wild Card hit a snag on Tuesday when Matt Holliday exited with discomfort in his right hand. Shortly thereafter, the club announced that Holliday is day to day. Holliday reportedly felt the discomfort in the same location where he dealt with an inflamed tendon earlier in September that forced him to miss nine games.
Holliday's injury, coupled with the loss of Rafael Furcal, could force the Cardinals to play their season finale with two important cogs missing from the lineup. Furcal left Monday's game with a sore left hamstring, and La Russa does not expect his shortstop to be available on Wednesday.
Astros: Melancon's march
Mark Melancon has tossed 11 consecutive scoreless outings, totaling 11 2/3 innings with 15 strikeouts and just two walks, dating back to Aug. 29. The right-hander is 6-for-6 in save opportunities during that stretch.
Melancon has held opponents to a .079 average (3-for-38) over that span. He is 2-0 with a 0.58 ERA in his last 14 appearances, with seven saves.
Since being recalled from Triple-A Oklahoma City on Aug. 25, J.A. Happ is 2-1 with with 34 strikeouts and a 2.43 ERA in six starts, spanning 37 innings. Happ was 4-14 with a 6.25 ERA in 22 starts prior to that date.
The Cardinals are chasing their second Wild Card berth in franchise history. St. Louis previously reached the postseason via the Wild Card in 2001.