Phils eye another NL East title in opener with Cards

The Phillies remained very businesslike on Wednesday when they officially clinched a spot in the postseason. Ryan Howard and company may be able to cut loose a bit more tonight with a chance at wrapping up the National League East title.

Though it needs a bit of help as well, Philadelphia gets a chance to wrap up its fifth straight division championship this evening in the opener of a four-game series with the St. Louis Cardinals, who still hope to get a chance at facing the Phils in the playoffs.

The Phillies hit the field for a pair of games versus the Marlins on Thursday, one day after officially punching their ticket to the postseason with at least a wild card berth. Philadelphia then went on to sweep the doubleheader, giving it a magic number of two to claim the division. That means a win in this game coupled with a Braves loss to the Mets would wrap up the NL East for the Phils.

Should Philadelphia clinch the division tonight in its 149th game of the season, it would mark the earliest doing so in club history, surpassing the 1976 club that did so in 156 games.

Pitching was the main factor in yesterday's sweep, with Kyle Kendrick taking a no-hitter into the fifth inning before giving off a leadoff homer. That was all the Marlins would get in the 3-1 win for the Phils as Kendrick picked up the victory.

Cliff Lee then dazzled with 8 2/3 shutout innings in the nightcap before yielding a game-tying home run to Jose Lopez that forced extra innings. Howard, though, came through with an RBI double in the bottom of the 10th for a 2-1 triumph.

"It was supposed to be a backdoor cutter. I left it up out over the plate," Lee explained. "He hit a home run. That's really it. I just made a bad pitch."

In a rotation that features four aces in Lee, Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt, it is fitting that Vance Worley gets a chance to pitch the Phillies to the division title tonight.

The rookie is 11-2 with a 2.92 earned run average in 21 games this season and had won his past nine decisions prior to a 3-2 loss to the Brewers on Sunday. Philadelphia had also won each of the right-hander's past 14 starts, one shy of the club record set by the 1972 club with Steve Carlton on the mound.

The 23-year-old Worley, who faces the Cardinals for the first time in his career, was charged with three runs over 6 2/3 innings while striking out seven in defeat.

"It's just one game," he said. "Giving up the hit was more frustrating than not getting the calls. You're not going to get every call."

The Cardinals will be trying to keep their playoff hopes alive tonight against Worley, as they trail the wild card-leading Braves by 4 1/2 games while also sitting 5 1/2 games behind the Brewers for first place in the NL Central.

St. Louis has won seven of its last eight games and returns to the field after yesterday's off day. That came after the Cardinals posted a 3-2 win over the Pirates.

Yadier Molina hit a two-run double and Edwin Jackson hurled 6 2/3 innings of two-run ball to help the Cardinals win their second straight after losing Monday's opener.

"[Pirates manager] Clint [Hurdle] and his staff have done a very good job of playing baseball for nine innings and they've certainly played us tough," Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa said.

Matt Holliday sat out Wednesday's game after suffering an inflamed tendon in his right middle finger on Tuesday and isn't expected to play in this series. Rafael Furcal could despite leaving the last game in the fifth inning with a left knee injury.

Jamie Garcia hopes to follow up a six-game winless streak (0-3) with this third straight winning start this evening for the Cards.

Garcia beat the Braves on Saturday, giving up three runs on eight hits over six innings of a 4-3 triumph. He moved to 12-7 with a 3.68 ERA on the season.

The 25-year-old southpaw has good career numbers against the Phillies, going 2-1 with a 1.17 ERA in five games, including three starts. He gave up just one unearned run in a no-decision against them on May 17.

The Cardinals are 3-2 versus the Phillies this year, with all five previous meetings taking place in St. Louis.