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Defending champ Cardinals clinch final playoff spot, set up final hectic day to regular season

Rather than spraying champagne in every direction, the defending World Series champions talked about holding a subdued party if they squeezed into the postseason.

When it finally happened, the St. Louis Cardinals just couldn't help themselves.

First-year manager Mike Matheny, wearing a uniform top over an undershirt that was soaked and aromatic from the bubbly that flowed, addressed the media outside the clubhouse around 1 a.m. local time after the Cardinals clinched the second NL wild card when Los Angeles lost to San Francisco.

The Dodgers' elimination set up a final hectic day to the regular season in which the AL West and AL East crowns are up for grabs, and Miguel Cabrera can become baseball's first Triple Crown winner since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.

Just before Matheny emerged, raucous cheering could be heard.

"I think they realized how special this is," Matheny said. "You can't take these for granted. We were talking about it being kind of subdued and it was, but they're still proud. And had every right to be."

Nobody seemed to mind too much that they backed in, earning a one-game playoff Friday against the Braves in Atlanta.

"We were the last one in, but we have an opportunity to do something special," said pitcher Chris Carpenter, the loser in a 3-1 setback to the Cincinnati Reds Tuesday night. "I think the way the ballclub's playing right now we have a chance to move on.

"Hopefully, we can come out and do the things we've been doing for the last two or three weeks."

While all 10 playoff spots in the majors are taken, the Cardinals-Braves game is the only pairing that's set.

For the second season in a row, a hectic scramble is shaping up with first place and home-field advantage at stake.

Oakland, Texas, Baltimore and the New York Yankees can all take division titles. Each club is already assured a postseason slot.

Texas plays at Oakland in the afternoon — they're tied and the winner earns the West title, the loser gets a wild card.

"No one said it was going to be easy," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "We started out to play 162 games and now — tomorrow — it's 162. And we'll see what happens."

In the East, the Yankees can win it at home if they beat Boston or if second-place Baltimore loses at Tampa Bay. If the Orioles overcome their one-game deficit Wednesday night, they'll host the Yankees in a tiebreaker Thursday.

"We have the chance to have the best record, and that's the bottom line and that's a good feeling that you can control that," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said.

Washington, Cincinnati and San Francisco won their NL divisions. Detroit has wrapped up the AL Central, and Cabrera is in position to win the Triple Crown.

Cabrera has 44 home runs, one more than Texas' Josh Hamilton. The Tigers star is hitting .331, seven points ahead of Angels rookie Mike Trout, and his 139 RBIs are 11 more than Hamilton's total.

Cabrera has deflected attention of his achievement to his team's success. There will be time to celebrate — in the meantime, there are still two divisions to be decided.

Shades of last year, sort of, when the Cardinals and Tampa Bay claimed wild-card spots on a thrilling final day, chasing the Braves and Boston from the postseason picture.

This time, the races are all about seeding. Division winners can avoid a dangerous all-or-nothing game for the wild card, something baseball added this year.

The Cardinals are aiming to duplicate their success last fall, when they parlayed a wild-card berth into the franchise's 11th title, beating the Phillies, Brewers and Rangers to give manager Tony La Russa a fitting send-off.

No one seemed to mind that this year they'll have to be clicking from Day 1 — or it'll be over.

"A lot of clubs were in it at the end and it worked out for us," team chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said. "We need to go down there and win. We have the talent to go as far as our fortunes take us."

Matheny named 16-game winner Kyle Lohse as the starter Friday against the Braves. He also could have gone with Adam Wainwright, bumped from the start in the regular-season finale Wednesday to save his arm for the postseason.

"What is there not to like about him? I mean, what more can he do?" Matheny said of Lohse. "It's kind of lined up that way and we've had that in line for a while."

Lohse got a strong endorsement from Carpenter, who was 4-0 in the postseason last fall including must-have wins over Phillies ace Roy Halladay in Game 5 of the NL Division Series and Game 7 over the Rangers.

"There's no doubt about it, he's been our most consistent guy all year," Carpenter said. "I don't think it's been said enough because they might not think he's an exciting guy — he doesn't throw 95 miles an hour, doesn't strike out 250 guys a year — but when he's been healthy he's been one of our best pitchers.

"He deserves this game, he deserves to go out there and take it on."