10/09/06 1:59 AM ET
Cards no strangers to champagne
St. Louis advances to fifth NLCS in seven seasons
If La Russa manages the remainder of the postseason like he did this series, the red-clad, Budweiser-drinking Redbirds fans may have a chance to see a few games here the last week of October.La Russa took too much grief for holding Chris Carpenter out of the final game of the regular season so the right-hander would be available on regular rest to pitch Games 1 and 4 against a Padres team that has now won only once in 10 NLDS games against the Cardinals since the 1996 series. The Cardinals lost that final regular-season contest, but won their third NL Central title in row when Houston later went down. "We didn't back in," La Russa said, blanching at the phrasing of a question. "We got in on the last day of the season." Carpenter pitched superbly in the series, winning both his starts, while holding the Padres to three runs on 12 hits in 13 1/3 innings. He would have been the series MVP if they gave such an award in the first round, which they don't. Explaining his decision to hold Carpenter for Game 1 in San Diego, La Russa said the day before the series began that all he needed was one of his other starters to step up, that's how confident he was in Carpenter. "Obviously it shows the confidence he has in me," Carpenter said. "It shows the confidence the organization has in me to go out and do my job. And it obviously worked out." Jeff Weaver, who was discarded by the Angels earlier in the season only to be picked off the scrap heap by the Cardinals to replace Sidney Ponson, was the unlikely guy. Weaver won Game 2 at PETCO Park. La Russa, who usually doesn't outwardly revel when his machinations work out, said the decision to hold Carpenter for the NLDS was a no-brainer. "I compare that decision to this," La Russa said smugly. "Say you're down in the ninth inning by one run. Your leadoff guy gets on and Albert comes up to bat. Do you have him bunt or swing? That's how tough it was. You let Albert swing, you hold Chris back. It wasn't a tough call." La Russa certainly won't have that kind of luxury in the next round. Carpenter won't pitch again until Game 3 on Saturday in St. Louis, meaning his reigning NL Cy Young Award-winner could come back if there's a Game 7 at Shea Stadium. Thus, La Russa will need two starters to come up big against the Mets, with Weaver getting the probable Game 1 start on Wednesday at Shea. It's been that kind of run for La Russa and the Cardinals, who made the playoffs with only 83 wins. "It's been a rugged season," La Russa said. It won't get any less rugged in the weeks ahead, particularly if there are a couple more champagne showers.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.