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Pitcher Chris Carpenter, right, and catcher Yadier Molina of the St. Louis Cardinals celebrate their win over the Houston Astros which pushed them into the playoffs on Wednesday. ((Bob Levey/Getty Images))

As the euphoria of winning the National League wild card wore off in the wee hours, the St. Louis Cardinals collectively took a deep breath.

Savouring a celebration that seemed more spontaneous than scripted, they'll try to take the September groove no one thought they had in them into October.

St. Louis trailed Atlanta by 10 ½ games on Aug. 25, then won 23 of the last 31 games to finish its improbable charge. The Cardinals also owe the Philadelphia Phillies a tip of the cap for ending the season with a sweep of the Braves, who lost 18 of their last 27.

"To me, forever and ever, I have the Phillies in the highest regard," manager Tony La Russa said. "It's just not to think they won three games, but it's the way they competed."

But come Saturday, the 102-win Phillies will be hosting a confident, 90-win club.

"It's a great feeling to be able to come from so far down," Lance Berkman said. "We felt like we had a run like these in us, and we executed it just in the nick of time.

"And here we are."

The Cardinals and Nationals were the only two National League teams to post a winning record against Philadelphia. St. Louis took the season series 6-3 and took three of four on the road earlier this month.

Berkman batted .467 against the Phillies with two homers and seven RBIs.

"A lot is going to be made of the fact that we played pretty well against the Phillies this year, but with the playoffs it's a different story," Berkman said. "We just have to come out and try to be the team that we've been over the last month this year.

"If we do, we have a chance."

La Russa remembers wondering at one point in August if the Cardinals would finish above .500 and relishes his ninth playoff appearance in 16 years with St. Louis all the more. After trailing the Braves by 10 ½ games on Aug. 25, the Cardinals were 23-9 the rest of the way, taking nine of 10 series and sweeping the Braves and NL Central-champion Brewers.

Blowing their lead

They won 16 of their last 21 to finally overtake the Braves, who are the first team in major league history to blow a lead of at least eight games for a playoff spot in September.

"We came from so far back," La Russa said. "It's nice to be part of history because the club deserved it. We were great for four months, and we had a little bad period, then we really came charging back.

"Adversity was something that we embraced."

More adversity lingers for the postseason, with Matt Holliday (hand) and Rafael Furcal (hamstring) questionable for the Division Series opener. Holliday hasn't played since leaving Tuesday's game with a tendon strain, and Furcal was hurt on Monday.

Allen Craig has given the offense a big boost in place of Holliday and finished with a .315 average, 11 homers and 40 RBIs in only 200 at-bats. Nick Punto is the likely replacement at shortstop if Furcal can't go.

Kyle Lohse (14-8, 3.39) was set to start a one-game playoff on Thursday had the Cardinals and Braves tied. Now, he'll start in the Division Series opener. Lohse endured alterations to the rotation that had him starting on long rest a handful of times after the All-Star break and was at his best in the final month, going 3-1 with a 1.37 ERA. He was 1-1 with a 1.76 ERA in two starts against the Phillies.

Chris Carpenter (11-9, 3.45) was 4-1 in September with two shutouts, including a two-hitter at Houston Wednesday night that clinched at least a tie for the wild card, and could go on three days' rest in Game 2 Sunday.

The right-hander worked eight shutout innings at Philadelphia on Sept. 18 and totalled 40 innings in five starts the last month, finishing among the league leaders in innings.

Berkman's comeback year helped the Cardinals overcome a so-so season by Albert Pujols — at least by the three-time NL MVP's standards. Pujols batted .299 with 37 homers and 99 RBIs, the first time in his 11-year career that he didn't bat .300 and didn't drive in 100 runs.

"Say whatever they want, that those are not the type of numbers that I put up every year," Pujols said. "I wish I could have contributed a little bit more.

"But you know what? We have a new life."