Cardinals make playoffs for third straight year

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Before the celebration began, the St. Louis Cardinals paused to honor a teammate and broadcaster.

Manager Tony La Russa gathered the players after their NL
Central-clinching 9-3 victory over the Houston Astros on Friday
night to remind them of the hurdles they've cleared and to pay
tribute to Darryl Kile and Jack Buck.

This is the Cardinals' third straight playoff berth and third
division title in seven years under La Russa, and it clearly came
under the toughest of circumstances.

Kile died in the team's Chicago hotel on June 22 from a blockage
of the arteries supplying the heart. It came just one week after
the death of longtime announcer Buck, leaving a huge hole in the
rotation and a team in depression.

"I wanted to make sure us as a group took a minute and included
Jack and Darryl,'' La Russa said. "I think a bunch of us felt it
was appropriate to gather around and restate our dedication of what
we've done to Jack and Darryl.''

Third baseman Scott Rolen, one of St. Louis' key in-season
additions, made a leaping catch to rob Brian Hunter and end the
game, similar to his diving stop of Hunter to start the first. The
Cardinals celebrated near the mound at Busch Stadium as Albert
Pujols carried Kile's jersey onto the field.

Jim Edmonds sprayed Kile's jersey with champagne in the

Staff ace Matt Morris, a 15-game winner, perhaps took Kile's
loss the hardest.

"It's an unbelievable feeling for us right now,'' Morris said.
"I know DK is watching and smiling. I wish he was in here with us
right now.''

St. Louis will probably open the playoffs at Arizona on Oct. 1.
The Diamondbacks eliminated the Cardinals in five games in the
opening round last season and went on to win the World Series.

Starting pitching has been a problem all season for St. Louis,
with the Cardinals using 14 starters and 26 pitchers this season.
Andy Benes' triumphant return from the brink of retirement, the
emergence of 28-year-old rookie Jason Simontacchi and July pickup
Chuck Finley helped the Cardinals fill the void.

Typically, the Cardinals lost another pitcher in the clincher.
Woody Williams, making his fifth start since coming off his second
stint on the disabled list for a pulled muscle in his left side,
left the game with two outs in the fifth and a 5-3 lead.

The team said Williams experienced tightness in his back and rib

"For me this is bittersweet,'' Williams said. "I made a
promise to them that if I felt something I'd take myself out, and
that's what happened.

"Today was the best I've felt the whole time.''

None of it has slowed down the Cardinals, who have won 14 of
their last 16 to bury the Astros, their closest competition in the
Central. Houston is seven games behind wild-card leading San
Francisco with eight games to play.

"I think we've been pushing all season long,'' La Russa said.
"When they smelled that finish line they were relentless.''

The Astros won the Central last year and clinched it at Busch
Stadium on the final day of the season as the Cardinals, who ended
with an identical record, settled for the wild card because the
Astros had a 12-5 head-to-head record.

"They played unbelievable,'' Houston's Craig Biggio said.
"They've been sweeping teams, and they never gave us a chance to
get close.''

Hunter drove in all three runs for the Astros with a run-scoring
single in the third and a two-run homer in the fifth.

Two-run innings in the first and second gave the Cardinals a
quick 4-0 lead. Fernando Vina provided an immediate spark when he
tripled off the wall against Pete Munro (5-5), and scored on
Marrero's single.

Tino Martinez added an RBI single and Pujols hit a two-run
single with two outs in the second. Rolen added an RBI single in
the fourth.

Marrero and Jim Edmonds hit consecutive homers in the sixth off
rookie Jeriome Robertson and after Pujols flied out, Rolen hit his
29th to make it 8-3. All three players gave curtain calls to a
half-filled yet noisy crowd at Busch Stadium.

Rick White (5-6), the Cardinals' fourth pitcher, worked a
scoreless seventh for the win. Released earlier this year by the
Rockies, White has allowed one unearned run in 18 1/3 innings with
the Cardinals since being called up Aug. 24.

Munro lost for the second straight time to the Cardinals,
allowing five runs on nine hits in four innings.

"Being realistic about it, they're as good as anyone in the
National League,'' Munro said. "They will be formidable for

Game notes
This is the second time in franchise history that the
Cardinals have qualified for the postseason three straight years.
The other time was 1942-44. ... The Cardinals have hit back-to-back
homers nine times this season, including the last three games. ...
Marrero's homer off Robertson was his 16th of the season, but first
off a left-hander. ... The Cardinals have hit 14 homers in their
last four games. ... Hunter has seven multihit games in his last 14
starts. ... Marrero, who drew an intentional walk in the seventh,
also set a career best by scoring four runs.