Cardinals clinch NL Central with win over Rockies

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DENVER (AP)—Matt Holliday(notes) celebrated another playoff clincher at Coors Field, only this time it was with the St. Louis Cardinals and not the Colorado Rockies.

Holliday keyed a three-run rally in the first inning and the Cardinals clinched the NL Central crown when they beat the Rockies 6-3 Saturday night behind Adam Wainwright’s(notes) 19th victory.

Jason LaRue(notes), subbing at catcher for injured All-Star Yadier Molina(notes), homered off Ubaldo Jimenez(notes) to break a seventh-inning tie, and now Holliday has another special memory at the ballpark on Blake Street.

“It didn’t matter where it was,” Holliday said. “I have a lot of friends over there. It’s a new team and a new experience, a totally different thing.”

Holliday, who spent a decade in the Rockies organization before being traded last winter, was at the center of one of the enduring images from the Rockies’ remarkable 21-1 run-up to their World Series appearance in 2007. He scored the winning run in Colorado’s 13-inning victory over San Diego in the NL wild-card tiebreaker that year, dribbling his chin though the batter’s box on his headfirst slide to the plate.

The red splashed across his chest this time was there on purpose.

“I don’t have any blood on my chin,” Holliday said, scratching his stubble and grinning. “That’s weird.”

Colorado’s lead in the NL wild-card race shrunk to 2 1/2 games over the Atlanta Braves, who beat Washington 11-5 Saturday.

The Cardinals, the first major league team to win its division, are headed back to the playoffs for the first time since winning the 2006 World Series. Led by the 1-2 punch of slugger Albert Pujols(notes) and Holliday, whom they acquired from Oakland at midseason, the Cardinals have been alone atop the division since Aug. 7.

They became the third team to secure a playoff spot, joining the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers.

“We played good baseball tonight,” Holliday said before donning swimming goggles to protect him from all the champagne being sprayed around. “They’re trying to win a playoff spot just like we are. It was good baseball.”

Wainwright (19-8) allowed three runs, two earned, and 10 hits over eight innings while also contributing a pair of two-out doubles. He escaped an eighth-inning jam by striking out Clint Barmes(notes) and pinch-hitter Jason Giambi(notes), both looking, to strand runners on first and second.

“He might have won the (Cy Young) award in the eighth inning,” Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said of his right-hander who walked one and struck out 11 while throwing a career-high 130 pitches.

“If you had given me the ball in the ninth, I would have sprinted out there,” Wainwright insisted.

Ryan Ludwick(notes) pinch-hit for him in the ninth, however, and cracked a two-run homer, his 22nd, off Matt Daley(notes), giving closer Ryan Franklin(notes) a three-run cushion to work with.

He nearly needed every bit of it to record his 38th save in 43 tries.

With runners at second and third and two outs, Ryan Spilborghs(notes) chopped a groundball to second baseman Skip Schumaker(notes), who threw to Franklin covering first base for the final out.

“I was just thinking, ‘Get to the bag first and squeeze it like you’ve never squeezed the ball before,”’ Franklin said.

Whew! The Cardinals finally had their playoff ticket, and La Russa tossed his cap into the stands as a throng of red-clad fans gathered behind the third-base dugout.

That and some handshakes were the extent of their on-field jubilation. La Russa said the Cardinals wanted to celebrate in the clubhouse out of respect to the Rockies—who might very well be their first-round playoff opponent.

With their magic number stuck at one since a loss to Houston on Wednesday, the Cardinals got no help from the San Francisco Giants, who dropped three straight to the Chicago Cubs.

La Russa insisted he was glad the Cardinals didn’t back into playoffs so they could capture the crown on their own.

“That’s exactly the way you’d like to win it,” he said. “That’s why we were pulling for the Cubs.”

Holliday, who led the Rockies to their only NL pennant in 2007 before being traded away last winter, keyed a three-run outburst in the first inning off Jimenez (14-12), who gave up four runs on seven hits over seven innings.

He drove in a run with a single and scored on Molina’s single. In between, Rick Ankiel(notes) hit a hot grounder that bounced out of first baseman Todd Helton’s(notes) glove. An alert Jimenez scooped it up and beat Ankiel to the bag, but Pujols scored from third on the play.

The Rockies pulled to 3-1 in the third when Helton scored from second base on third baseman Joe Thurston’s(notes) throwing error. They tied it on Brad Hawpe’s(notes) two-run homer, his 21st, in the fourth, one pitch after plate umpire Dan Iassogna turned and hollered at Rockies manager Jim Tracy, who complained about his strike zone.

Molina was struck on the left knee by foul ball off the bat of the next hitter, Barmes, and had to leave the game. He was replaced by LaRue, who sent an off-speed pitch from Jimenez into the left-field bleachers, giving St. Louis a 4-3 lead in the seventh.

“I don’t really understand how I did it,” LaRue said of his first homer since May 7. “It feels great.”

After going 38-14 at home since Tracy took over May 29, the Rockies have lost three of five on this nine-game homestand, allowing the surging Braves to inject some drama into the wild-card race.

“We’re still ahead,” Jimenez said. “That’s what matters. No pressure, we’re still ahead.”

NOTES: The Cardinals won for the first time in six tries over Colorado. … Molina is day to day.

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