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Cards came together in time for October

Cards came together in time for October

ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals entered the final weekend of the regular season as a team beaten, bruised, battered and on the verge of the biggest collapse in baseball history.

An 8 1/2-game lead over the Astros in the National League Central on Sept. 20 had shrunk to merely half a game with three contests left in the regular season. The Cardinals opened a four-game set on Thursday, Sept. 28, against the Brewers in desperate need of a win.

They dropped the first game of the series, marking their ninth loss in the past 11 games. The next day, though, yielded the turnaround.

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The Cardinals won Friday night behind Jeff Weaver, Saturday afternoon with a revamped and retooled bullpen and clinched the division title on Sunday, paving the way for postseason success that hadn't been equaled by St. Louis since its 1982 world championship.

Weaver got the ball rolling by tossing 5 2/3 innings of three-run ball, ending both his personal struggles and his team's problems. Acquired in midseason from the Angels, the right-hander had been very strong on the road, but the 10-5 victory over the Brewers marked his first victory at Busch Stadium.

"He was outstanding," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said.

The fans, deathly silent earlier in the week, exploded several times throughout the contest, adding fuel for the raucous crowds in the postseason. Offensively, led by core players Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen, Juan Encarnacion and recent acquisition Preston Wilson, the team ended a six-game funk in which it averaged fewer than four runs a game.

Meanwhile in Atlanta, Braves rookie Chuck James helped the Cardinals tremendously, tossing seven innings of one-run ball against the Astros and outpitching future Hall of Famer Roger Clemens. When the final score of the Braves' game was posted on the Busch Stadium Jumbotron, fans started the Tomahawk Chop in appreciation of Atlanta's victory. A few hours later, the Cardinals finished their win, lowering their magic number to 2 with two days left in the regular season.

On Saturday, the Cardinals rode clutch pinch-hitting, great starting pitching and their new-look bullpen to capture another virtual playoff game over the Brewers, 3-2.

"It's all about pitching," Cardinals outfielder John Rodriguez said. "Everyone from our starters to our bullpen pitched great down the stretch."

Saturday also saw the return of shortstop David Eckstein and center fielder Jim Edmonds to the starting lineup, two critical players who had missed significant time down the stretch and throughout the season. For one of the few times in the past few months, the Cardinals had their complete lineup intact -- a lineup that saw little change among the core players in the postseason.

"Everybody got healthy and got out there every day," backup catcher Gary Bennett said. "Different [critical] guys had gotten hurt and had been out sporadically. In the playoffs, we had our best lineup."

The Astros won their Saturday contest, but the Redbirds, helped by Scott Spiezio's pinch-hit three-run triple in the bottom of the eighth inning, morphed a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 lead.

Since closer Jason Isringhausen went down for the season in early September, a young and inexperienced bullpen had trouble adjusting to new roles. It blew several late-inning leads, leading to the near collapse.

On Saturday, though, led by rookies Tyler Johnson and Adam Wainwright, the 'pen provided support to Jeff Suppan's outstanding start and held the lead.

"If they don't come through, there is a good chance we could be trailing in the division right now," Bennett said after the game.

Johnson delivered a shutout eighth, mixing his fastball and wicked slider more effectively and exuding plenty of confidence -- precursors to his outstanding work in the playoffs.

Wainwright, the new closer after Izzy was lost, earned the first one-run save of his career, showing an outstanding fastball, great curveball and slider that shut down postseason lineups for three weeks.

"Not just his stuff, but his composure that he had [was terrific]," La Russa said.

And Wainwright maintained that composure, providing a ninth-inning backbone for the postseason team that featured a confident bullpen, healthy lineup and terrific starting pitching and an eventual title.

Conor Nicholl is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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