"I'm sending them home," rookie manager Mike Matheny said after a 3-1 loss to the Cincinnati Reds on Tuesday kept St. Louis' postseason plans on hold for a few hours. "They need to get some rest."
Almost everybody stayed put, though, and Matheny said the players who left were back in the clubhouse well before the Cardinals learned they'd be headed back to the playoffs to defend their World Series championship.
Reporters were not allowed into the victory celebration, but loud cheering could be heard beyond the locked door just outside the clubhouse.
"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."
St. Louis clinched baseball's final postseason berth early Wednesday when the Los Angeles Dodgers lost 4-3 to San Francisco. After wrapping up the second NL wild card, the Cardinals will play at Atlanta on Friday in the new one-game playoff.
"It's a great feeling. It's a wonderful accomplishment," general manager John Mozeliak said. "I couldn't be more proud of these guys and especially Mike Matheny for what he was able to do with his leadership."
Matheny said Kyle Lohse (16-3, 2.86 ERA) will start against the Braves.
"What is there not to like about him? I mean, what more can he do?" Matheny said. "It's kind of lined up that way and we've had that in line for a while."
The loss left the Dodgers two games behind St. Louis with one to go.
Cardinals players stayed in the clubhouse after beating the Reds on Monday night to watch the Dodgers edge the Giants, trudging home after midnight when Los Angeles snapped a ninth-inning tie to win.
One night later, St. Louis got in with some help from the Giants.
For their part, the NL Central champion Reds did their best to keep the Cardinals down.
"All they need is a chance," said Jay Bruce, who had an RBI single in the sixth. "We saw that last year. They got in and they made the best out of it, literally made the best out of it. They won the World Series."
Mat Latos won his fourth straight decision to finish the regular season and Scott Rolen homered off Chris Carpenter.
Cincinnati remained tied with Washington for the league's best record. The Reds need a win Wednesday and a Nationals loss to earn home-field advantage throughout the postseason.
"We don't know if it's going to be advantageous to get first, second or third, or the wild card," manager Dusty Baker said. "Right now, this is all new.
"All of us, same in the American League as in our league, we all have to start on the road."
The 37-year-old Carpenter (0-2) has a wealth of big-game experience and went 4-0 in the postseason last fall for the World Series champions, memorably outdueling Philadelphia ace Roy Halladay in Game 5 of the NL division series.
Injured most of this season, Carpenter made just his third start of the year gave up a pair of runs in the sixth to snap a 1-all tie. Bruce and Dioner Navarro had RBIs.
"I've said all along this is like my third spring training start in a key situation," Carpenter said. "I'm concerned about the stuff and the sharpness and tonight it was better than the last time.
"So, hopefully I get another shot."
Despite the loss, the Cardinals are 11-4 in their last 15 games. Now they can hold back Adam Wainwright (14-13, 3.94), who had been set to pitch the regular-season finale against Homer Bailey (13-10, 3.75), who is coming off a no-hitter at Pittsburgh.
Prized rookie Shelby Miller will get his first career start in place of Wainwright.
"It's every pitcher's dream to pitch in the big moment," Wainwright said.
Latos (14-4) had an abbreviated appearance while freshening up for the postseason and, like teammate Bronson Arroyo a day earlier, worked five innings and threw fewer than 75 pitches. Latos allowed a run on four hits with four strikeouts, all in a span of four at-bats against the bottom of the St. Louis lineup.
The 24-year-old Latos was 4-0 with a 2.27 ERA over his last seven starts and set career highs in starts (34) and innings (209 1-3).
"Pitching against a team like them, they're aggressive, they know what they're doing," Latos said. "A great hitting ballclub. To give up one run in five innings is doing pretty well."
With what was left of an announced crowd of 39,644 standing and hooting, Aroldis Chapman worked the ninth for his 38th save in 43 chances. He has allowed just one hit in four scoreless appearances covering four innings since returning from a nine-game absence due to shoulder fatigue on Sept. 21.
Carpenter gave up three runs and seven hits in six innings while losing for the fifth time in 19 career decisions against Cincinnati. He had seven strikeouts, two more than his total for the first two starts over 11 innings.
The Cardinals stranded two runners in the second and third against Latos and had two on with one out in the seventh before Sean Marshall got pinch-hitter Shane Robinson to fly out and Jon Jay on a broken-bat groundout.
Rolen, batting .247 but hitting at a .301 clip since the All-Star break, tied it in the fourth when he jumped on a first-pitch hanging breaking ball for his eighth homer.
Baker played for keeps in the early going. He brought the infield in with a runner on third and one out in the first for Matt Holliday, who hit a sacrifice fly, then intentionally walked eighth-place hitter Pete Kozma with two outs and a man on third in the second inning to get to Carpenter, who grounded out sharply to third.
NOTES: Carpenter has 1,085 strikeouts with St. Louis, six more than Bob Forsch for third on the franchise list. Next is Dizzy Dean at 1,095. ... Reds pinch-hitter Todd Frazier grounded out sharply with two on to end the sixth, dropping him to 6 for 12 with three RBIs in that role. ... Joey Votto doubled and walked twice and has a major league-leading .515 on-base percentage with 27 walks since returning to the lineup Sept. 5. ... Jay had two hits and has 37 multihit games on the year, 21 of them since Aug. 6. .. Holliday has consecutive multihit games, giving him 55 on the year.