La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan had a decision to make as the Cardinals' lead over the Astros in the National League Central shrunk to 1 1/2 games entering Sunday's scheduled regular-season finale. They faced so many scenarios it made your head hurt:
Beat the Brewers, and the Cardinals were the division champs for the third straight year.
Lose to the Brewers, but have the Astros win in Atlanta, and the Cardinals still won the division.
But a loss to the Brewers and an Astros win over the Braves would have cut the Cardinals' lead to half a game and forced them to play a makeup game against the Giants on Monday to account for an earlier rainout. Carpenter would have started.
Lose that game, and the Cardinals would have had to play the Astros on Tuesday in a one-game "play-in" for the division crown and a spot in the postseason.
La Russa and Duncan began mulling the what-ifs mid-week. Late Saturday, La Russa decided to roll the dice and used rookie Anthony Reyes against the Brewers.
"It wasn't even a tough call," La Russa said. "I was surprised at how easy the call was. I did notice that there was some disagreement with the decision because they felt like it was a risk. Maybe I'm dumb about that. I didn't see the risk."
It was dicey for a few innings on Sunday. Reyes didn't make it out of the first inning as the Brewers built a 5-0 lead, but in the bottom of the fifth inning, fans at Busch Stadium were informed that the Astros had been eliminated in a loss to the Braves. The celebration was on.
"I was preparing myself to face the Brewers on Sunday. That ended up not happening," Carpenter said with a smile. "Then during [Sunday's] game I found myself thinking about the Giants, no question about it. And then we got in, so I've been preparing myself for San Diego."
Just the way La Russa drew it up.
"It obviously worked out the way they wanted it to work out," Carpenter said. "That's not my call. I came prepared to pitch [Sunday]. Obviously that all worked out to get me this opportunity, and I'm looking forward to the opportunity. ... No matter how you get in, we have an opportunity from this point."
It was the possibility of Carpenter, the 2005 NL Cy Young Award winner, pitching twice in a five-game series that made the Cardinals a dangerous opponent despite an 83-78 regular-season record. St. Louis went 20-12 in games started by the big right-hander.
Carpenter likely won't win another Cy Young, thanks in part to his 15-8 personal record. But he and the team know that he pitched well enough to have a much better mark than that. Seven times this season, he pitched at least six innings, allowed no more than one earned run and did not receive a win.
"Everything hasn't worked for him this year," La Russa said. "Sometimes, we don't score. And he has just ignored everything and gotten ready to pitch, and he's putting [together] another great season. But it isn't like everything fell into place for him. He's had a couple things go against him."
In 2004, Carpenter missed the postseason with a nerve ailment in his right biceps. Last year, however, he started Game 1 of the Division Series and the National League Championship Series. In three starts, he tallied 21 innings, allowing a total of five earned runs and went 2-0.
That followed a September fade, as Carpenter slumped after the Cards put the division out of reach. He endured a briefer late-season funk this year, allowing six runs in each of his final two starts.
According to La Russa, it has been different this year. In 2005, Carpenter lost a little of his concentration once the games ceased to have much meaning. In 2006, the manager said it's been the opposite -- Carpenter has tried too hard.
"He talked to me about it a little bit, about trying to do too much," Carpenter said. "I'm just trying to do the best I can. Unfortunately, the last two times out, it came down to executing two bad pitches."
It will all be forgotten if he puts St. Louis ahead in the Division Series. And for a man whose pitch-by-pitch focus is such an asset, the chances of that are pretty good.
"The things that make it difficult to perform are your own personal thoughts about the situation," Carpenter said. "If you can eliminate the outside stuff, what's going on, and just go out and control what you can control and do the best job you can ... that's all that counts.
"Win or lose, you can only do what you can. Make sure you prepare yourself mentally to go out and do the best job you can. All the outside [factors] that go on around it is caused by other stuff. You've got to eliminate that."