ST. LOUIS -- The Cardinals, playing perhaps their best ball of the season, closed the regular season with a rush on Sunday. Their sixth straight victory, a fast-paced 4-0 decision over the Chicago Cubs at Busch Stadium, tied their season-high winning streak and, more significantly, gave them the best record in the National League at 97-65 and home-field advantage throughout the National League playoffs.
The Cardinals don't know whom they will be playing when the division round begins here Thursday but it won't be the Los Angeles Dodgers, as long had been envisioned.
Tuesday's winner of the wild-card game between National League Central Division rivals Pittsburgh and Cincinnati will be the Cardinals' first playoff opponent in a best-of-five series while Western Division champion Los Angeles will open at Eastern Division champion Atlanta.
The win, his 10th, went to Joe Kelly, who yielded his scheduled start to Jake Westbrook, who pitched one inning on his 36th birthday and in probably his last regular-season game with the Cardinals. Kelly pitched 5 1/3 innings of relief, about as long as his normal start, and held the Cubs to three hits.
Kelly, whose third-inning double was his first extra-base hit of the season, scored the go-ahead run in that inning on a single by Jon Jay, who earlier had earlier had extended his hitting streak to 14 games.
Doubles by Matt Adams and Daniel Descalso and a single by Shane Robinson accounted for two more runs in the fourth. And Tony Cruz, who replaced Yadier Molina behind the plate before the first pitch was even thrown, doubled home the final Cardinals run in the eighth. All four runs scored with two outs.
Veteran lefthander Randy Choate threw one pitch for a double play to escape a seventh-inning jam. Rookie Carlos Martinez pitched a perfect eighth and lefthander Kevin Siegrist allowed a two-hit single in the ninth before getting the final out on a ground ball.
The team then took a collective curtain call as a paid crowd of 44,808 stood and cheered.
To have the best record in the league (and tied with Boston for the best in the majors) was something the Cardinals wanted even though two regulars, Matt Holliday and David Freese, rested Sunday and two others, Yadier Molina and Carlos Beltran, came out of the game early, Molina even before it started.
Infielder Matt Carpenter, who fell one hit shy of 200, said, "It's definitely a big deal having home-field advantage and for us to have the best record."
Choate's DP pitch ends threat
Cardinals lefthander Randy Choate relieved Joe Kelly with runners at first and third and one out in the seventh inning Sunday. One pitch later, the inning was over and the Cardinals still had their 3-0 lead.
The veteran southpaw got Chicago's Brian Bogusevic to hit a hard one-hopper to shortstop Daniel Descalso, who started an inning-ending double play. Choate has allowed only nine of 59 runners he inherited to score this season.
Joe Kelly departed after giving up only three hits -- all doubles -- in 5 1/3 innings of relief.
Cards stretch lead to 3-0
Doubles by Matt Adams and Daniel Descalso and a single by Shane Robinson in the fourth inning shoved the Cardinals' lead over the Chicago Cubs to 3-0 Sunday. Descalso's two-out blow over the head of center fielder Ryan Sweeney was his second hit in 10 career at-bats against Cubs starter Jeff Samardzija.
Robinson, starting in place of Matt Holliday, singled to left to score Descalso.
Joe Kelly, in his first five innings of relief of Jake Westbrook, held the Cubs to two hits and struck out five as the Cardinals maintained their three-run edge into the bottom of the sixth.
Kelly helps himself to lead
Joe Kelly, relieving for the first time since June, helped give himself a 1-0 lead in the third inning over the Chicago Cubs on Sunday. Kelly doubled for his first extra-base hit of the season and scored on a two-out single by Jon Jay, who already had extended his hitting streak to a career-high 14 games with a single in the first.
Kelly came in after the first inning for veteran Jake Westbrook, who was making a ceremonial start after appearing in just one game this month. Kelly fanned four in his first two innings.
Molina departs -- and then Westbrook
Jake Westbrook, making probably his last start as a Cardinal, set down the Chicago Cubs on one hit in the first inning Sunday. The last out was a fly ball to right fielder Carlos Beltran. Westbrook slapped his fist into his glove and then asked for the ball from Beltran and Westbrook's season, and likely his career, with the Cardinals, had ended.
The veteran who turned 36 on Sunday, likely will not be included on the division series playoff roster and his option for 2014 also probably will not be picked up. Westbrook was replaced on the mound by righthander Joe Kelly, who originally was slated to have Sunday's start.
Before Westbrook had thrown any pitches, Cardinals All-Star catcher Yadier Molina, who had gone to his position, was replaced to a standing ovation by Tony Cruz.
Jon Jay extended his hitting streak to a career-best 14 games with a one-out single in the Cardinals' first but Kelly inherited a 0-0 score at the top of the second.
Lineup has many regulars
With a chance to finish with the National League's best record and home-field advantage for the league playoffs, Cardinals manager Mike Matheny is starting a lineup including many of his regulars Sunday against the Chicago Cubs.
The only ones resting are left fielder Matt Holliday, who is sitting at .300, and third baseman David Freese.
Kolten Wong will make his first start at second base in nearly a month, with Matt Carpenter, who needs one hit for 200 this season, shifting from third to second. Shane Robinson will start for Holliday in left.
Veteran Jake Westbrook, likely making his last regular-season appearance for the Cardinals, will be the starting pitcher.
A Cardinals win or Atlanta loss will give the Central Division champion Cardinals the No. 1 seed in the National League playoffs and will pit them against the wild-card winner (Pittsburgh or Cincinnati) in the divisional round here on Thursday. The Cardinals are one game ahead of Eastern Division champion Atlanta in the overall standings but if the teams tie, the Braves own the tiebreaker by virtue of their winning the regular-season series.
Atlanta then would be accorded the No. 1 seed, with the Cardinals opening a best-of-five series here with the Western Division champion Los Angeles Dodgers on Thursday.
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