ST. LOUIS -- The St. Louis Cardinals won another NL Central title with a team still running in reverse.
There was no sign of distress in a raucous clubhouse, though, with champagne spraying in every direction after the Cardinals backed into their third straight division championship and averted perhaps the biggest September collapse in major league history.
The Cardinals lost nine of their last 12, nearly squandering a seven-game lead. But they finally clinched a playoff berth Sunday in the fifth inning of a 5-3 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers when Houston was eliminated with a 3-1 defeat at Atlanta.
When the Cardinals got back to their clubhouse, all their struggles were forgotten and players whooped it up.
"Once we got in here and started popping the corks, it reminds me of old times," said Scott Spiezio, who won a World Series with the Angels in 2002. "I told the young guys to practice stuff so we can do it again and next time look a little better."
The Cardinals have no illusions about being a team to be feared in October. But they didn't care. They're in the postseason, taking on San Diego starting Tuesday at Petco Park.
"All right, we'll be the underdogs all day long," pitcher Chris Carpenter said. "In this situation anything can happen. We saw it with Houston last year."
St. Louis reached the postseason for the sixth time in seven years. The final out of Houston's game came with one out in the bottom of the fifth and the Brewers leading 5-0, prompting a huge ovation from a sellout crowd at Busch Stadium.
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa handed out congratulatory hugs in the dugout.
"I don't think anybody on this club wanted to be associated with mugging that lead," La Russa said. "That's one of those historic things that you'll never forget.
"We wanted to some way, somehow, get into the playoffs, and we did it."
La Russa gambled in the regular-season finale by holding back Carpenter for a possible playoff opener, reasoning that his struggling team needed two starts by the 15-game winner in the first round to have a chance against either the Dodgers or Padres in a series that starts Tuesday on the road.
The Brewers knocked out replacement starter Anthony Reyes in the first inning. La Russa believes the experience will help the rookie in the future, and he's certain it will help his team right now.
"Now, we've got a legitimate shot," La Russa said. "Otherwise we'd have gone in with one or two hands tied behind ourselves.
"This guy is as good of a pitcher that there is in major league baseball and we're only going to use him one time in the middle of the series?"
The 24-year-old Reyes (5-8), pitching on three days' rest, retired only two hitters and gave up homers to Prince Fielder and Geoff Jenkins in a four-run first. Carpenter would have pitched Monday in the makeup of a rainout against the Giants if the Astros had won, but now he'll be rested for the playoff opener and could pitch on regular rest in Game 4.
The Cardinals had a seven-game lead with 12 to play, and the cushion had dwindled to a half-game before a 10-5 victory over the Brewers on Friday coupled with a Houston loss. They finished 83-78, their worst record since going 75-86 in 1999 and the worst record by an NL Central champion. The Padres won the NL West at 82-80 last year.
After the final out, Cardinals players celebrated on the field, exchanging hugs on the field beneath confetti shot into the air by the team mascot, Fredbird. Most fans stood and applauded, giving the Cardinals the biggest cheer when they left the field.
The Cardinals reduced their magic number to one on Spiezio's pinch-hit, bases-loaded triple in the eighth off Francisco Cordero in a 3-2 victory on Saturday, and got a go-ahead, three-run homer from Albert Pujols that beat the Padres on Wednesday.
There were no such heroics on Sunday against rookie right-hander Carlos Villanueva (2-2), who held them to five hits in 8 1/3 innings despite pitching with a bruise on the base of his right hand after he tried to stop a line drive hit by the first batter he faced.
"We're not going to roll over and hand anything to anybody," Villanueva said. "I heard somebody say, 'Oh, they're throwing a rookie today.' It didn't bother me."
Chris Duncan and Pujols hit consecutive solo homers in the ninth for the Cardinals. It was the 22nd for Duncan in his rookie year. Pujols finished the season with 49.
Cordero got the final two outs, striking out Juan Encarnacion after allowing a solo shot by Spiezio.
The Cardinals finished 83-78 after consecutive 100-win seasons, including the franchise's first World Series appearance in 17 years in 2004 before being swept by the Red Sox.
Fielder's two-run shot in the first gave him 28 homers for the season, two more than the previous high for a rookie and son of a major leaguer. He homered in two of the last three games.
Jenkins hit his 17th homer and Corey Hart tripled and scored on David Bell's single to chase Reyes after only seven hitters. Mike Rivera homered in the fourth to make it 5-0.
The Brewers split the season-ending four-game series with the Cardinals and finished 27-54 on the road, the second-worst mark in the NL.
"We just wanted to come in here, stand up and play a good series," manager Ned Yost said. "I felt like there was a lot riding on this series, and we did OK."
- The Cardinals sold out the entire first season at new Busch Stadium with an attendance of 3,407,104, the second-largest in team history.