HOUSTON (AP) — Soaked with beer and champagne, Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman embraced in the St. Louis Cardinals plastic-wrapped clubhouse, basking in a celebration no one thought possible less than a month ago.
Chris Carpenter and the Cardinals completed one of baseball’s greatest comebacks on Wednesday night, clinching the NL wild card with an 8-0 win over Houston and a later loss by Atlanta.
The Cardinals got their playoff spot when the Braves fell to Philadelphia 4-3 in 13 innings.
St. Louis trailed Atlanta by 10½ games on Aug. 25, then won 23 of the last 31 games to finish its improbable charge.
"Any time you’re on a playoff team and you make a run like this, you invest a lot of yourself in the season with a great group of guys," Berkman said. "It just makes it special."
The Cardinals will open the postseason on Saturday at NL East champion Philadelphia. In the other NL playoff matchup, Arizona visits Milwaukee.
St. Louis went 6-3 against the Phillies in the regular season. Amid the smiles and spray, the Cardinals were already looking ahead.
"A lot is going to be made of the fact that we played pretty well against the Phillies this year," Berkman said, "but with the playoffs all around it’s a different story."
The Braves and Cardinals entered Wednesday’s regular-season finales with 89-72 records.
St. Louis made quick work of the punchless Astros, then rushed back into the clubhouse to watch the end of the Atlanta game. With the Braves two outs from defeat, a clubhouse attendant wheeled in a dolly stocked with cardboard boxes of beer.
And when Freddie Freeman rolled into a season-ending double play, the party began. The Cardinals passed out black caps with "2011 MLB Playoffs" emblazoned on top and black T-shirts with NL wild-card logos.
Within minutes, the floor of the clubhouse was littered with bottle caps and corks.
"It’s a great feeling to be able to come from so far down," Berkman said. "We felt like we had a run like this in us, and we executed it just in the nick of time. And here we are."
Carpenter (11-9) pitched like an ace, striking out 11 and allowing two hits in his 15th career complete-game shutout. The Cardinals poured onto the field after Carpenter fielded J.D. Martinez’s weak grounder for the final out.
"It was exciting, there’s no doubt about it," Carpenter said. "The way these guys have played the past month-and-a-half has been amazing, every single night grinding, playing their butts off, not giving up."
Atlanta’s game started an hour earlier, but the Cardinals virtually took away any hope for a Houston victory in the first inning, jumping to a 5-0 lead against Brett Myers (7-14).
Pujols and Berkman drove in runs with singles, and David Freese doubled to left-center before Myers even recorded an out. Berkman scored when Skip Schumaker’s hard grounder ricocheted off Myers’ glove for an infield hit, and Freese came home on Nick Punto’s single to right.
"I’m glad that we contributed early in the game," Pujols said, "and Carpenter obviously took them out and took care of business."
Carpenter was in total command from the start, striking out five of the first nine hitters. He also had an RBI single in the third to drive in Freese, who reached base when right fielder Brian Bogusevic dropped his fly ball for an error.
St. Louis stretched the lead to 7-0 in the fifth. Myers, 4-0 with a 1.24 ERA in his last five starts, hadn’t allowed more than nine hits in a start since Aug. 6.
"I really wanted to go out there and put them out," Myers said. "It didn’t work out."