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La Russa, Cardinals flying high after clinching NL Central title

Big League Stew

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For the eighth time in 14 seasons, Tony La Russa and the St. Louis Cardinals are headed to the playoffs. Behind right-hander Adam Wainwright(notes), who struck out 11 — including Jason Giambi(notes) to end a scoring threat in the eighth — the Cardinals beat the Rockies 6-3 on Saturday night to clinch the NL Central.

Update: Check out the Stew's photo slideshow of the Cards' clinching night in Denver.

The Cardinals, who previously won the division in 2006 when they also won the World Series, have taken seven Central championships since 1996, La Russa's first season as manager in St. Louis.

The second-place Cubs, the preseason favorites after finishing first in 2007 and 2008, beat San Francisco again, so it was up to the Cards to win if they didn't want to delay popping the champagne.

"It was really important; we wanted to win to get in," La Russa said in a TV interview. "It's a lot better to win than to sit around have somebody lose."

The club did lose catcher Yadier Molina(notes) to a knee injury in the fourth inning but his replacement, Jason LaRue(notes), hit a go-ahead home run in the seventh. Ryan Ludwick(notes) added a two-run homer for insurance in the ninth.

Wainwright, a contender for the NL Cy Young along with teammate Chris Carpenter(notes), won his 19th game after allowing two earned runs over eight innings. Ryan Franklin(notes) finished for his 38th save.

"I look up and down the roster and everybody contributed huge," La Russa said. "How about Jason LaRue coming in after Yadi? A lot of guys are going to celebrate, it's not just four or five guys who carried us."

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