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Cards no strangers to champagne

Cards no strangers to champagne

ST. LOUIS -- They never get old, these champagne celebrations that are staged in the Cardinals' clubhouse. And there have been a lot of them over the years.

"I swear they get better," said manager Tony La Russa, who was still in uniform long after his club locked up another National League Division Series with a 6-2, Game 4 win over the hapless Padres on Sunday night at Busch Stadium.

The corks popped and there was the usual scene of joyous players spraying beer and bubbly into the wall of plastic sheets that somehow materialize in front of all the lockers this time of year. Outside, fireworks lit up the fall sky and a rock band played long into the night after the first such clinching on the new field went into the books.

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The New York Mets, a formidable foe, are up next in the NL Championship Series in a rerun of 2000, the last time the Mets went to the World Series. But that's a story for Tuesday when the two clubs loosen up at Shea Stadium in a prelude of Wednesday night's Game 1 in this best-of-seven soirée.

The Cardinals aren't even fleeing town until late Monday afternoon. Presumably, the postgame party will be over by then, but the afterglow will remain.

The NLDS is the Cardinals' domain, as their 20-5 record since the three-tiered playoff format was instituted for good in 1995 obviously proves. They've won six out of seven and have been to the NLCS five times in the last seven years -- the last three in row.

All that early postseason good cheer has been tempered by the fact that the Cardinals have only won one NL pennant since La Russa left Oakland to become the manager in 1996. And then they were swept in the 2004 World Series by the Red Sox, who won for the first time in 86 years.

Cardinals fans haven't been deprived for anywhere near that kind of time -- 25 years and counting. But the last time they won a World Series, it was 1982. Whitey Herzog was managing, Bruce Sutter was closing and the Milwaukee Brewers were ousted in seven games. The Brewskies, it should be noted, are now in the NL and haven't been to the playoffs since in either league.

The great Albert Pujols, as he is known in these parts, sounded the cord for the rest of October when he said amidst the tart, smelly clubhouse hubbub that he wouldn't rest until the World Series is back in St. Louis.

"That's our goal for the fans," said Pujols, who won the first two games of the series with a homer and an RBI single, and began Sunday's decisive four-run sixth inning by nursing a leadoff walk against former teammate Woody Williams.

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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.

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