Series: Game 1 of 3

St. Louis leads 1-0 (as of 9/20)

Game 1: Friday, September 20
Houston 3Final
St. Louis 9
Game 2: Saturday, September 21
Houston 6Final
St. Louis 3
Game 3: Sunday, September 22
Houston 3Final
St. Louis 7

Astros 3

(81-73, 36-40 away)

Cardinals 9

(90-63, 45-27 home)

    8:10 PM ET, September 20, 2002

    Busch Stadium I, St. Louis, Missouri 

    123456789 R H E
    HOU 001020000 3 - -
    STL 22010310 - 9 - -

    W: R. White (5-6)

    L: P. Munro (5-5)

    Cardinals make playoffs for third straight year

    ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Before the celebration began, the St. Louis Cardinals paused to honor a teammate and broadcaster.

    Eli Marrero

    Eli Marrero circles the bases after his sixth-inning homer with a No. 57 on his wristband to honor Darryl Kile.

    Manager Tony La Russa gathered the players after their NL Central-clinching 9-3 victory over the Houston Astros on Friday night to remind them of the hurdles they've cleared and to pay tribute to Darryl Kile and Jack Buck.

    This is the Cardinals' third straight playoff berth and third division title in seven years under La Russa, and it clearly came under the toughest of circumstances.

    Kile died in the team's Chicago hotel on June 22 from a blockage of the arteries supplying the heart. It came just one week after the death of longtime announcer Buck, leaving a huge hole in the rotation and a team in depression.

    "I wanted to make sure us as a group took a minute and included Jack and Darryl,'' La Russa said. "I think a bunch of us felt it was appropriate to gather around and restate our dedication of what we've done to Jack and Darryl.''

    Third baseman Scott Rolen, one of St. Louis' key in-season additions, made a leaping catch to rob Brian Hunter and end the game, similar to his diving stop of Hunter to start the first. The Cardinals celebrated near the mound at Busch Stadium as Albert Pujols carried Kile's jersey onto the field.

    Jim Edmonds sprayed Kile's jersey with champagne in the clubhouse.

    Staff ace Matt Morris, a 15-game winner, perhaps took Kile's loss the hardest.

    "It's an unbelievable feeling for us right now,'' Morris said. "I know DK is watching and smiling. I wish he was in here with us right now.''

    St. Louis will probably open the playoffs at Arizona on Oct. 1. The Diamondbacks eliminated the Cardinals in five games in the opening round last season and went on to win the World Series.

    Starting pitching has been a problem all season for St. Louis, with the Cardinals using 14 starters and 26 pitchers this season. Andy Benes' triumphant return from the brink of retirement, the emergence of 28-year-old rookie Jason Simontacchi and July pickup Chuck Finley helped the Cardinals fill the void.

    Typically, the Cardinals lost another pitcher in the clincher. Woody Williams, making his fifth start since coming off his second stint on the disabled list for a pulled muscle in his left side, left the game with two outs in the fifth and a 5-3 lead.

    The team said Williams experienced tightness in his back and rib cage.

    "For me this is bittersweet,'' Williams said. "I made a promise to them that if I felt something I'd take myself out, and that's what happened.

    "Today was the best I've felt the whole time.''

    None of it has slowed down the Cardinals, who have won 14 of their last 16 to bury the Astros, their closest competition in the Central. Houston is seven games behind wild-card leading San Francisco with eight games to play.

    "I think we've been pushing all season long,'' La Russa said. "When they smelled that finish line they were relentless.''

    The Astros won the Central last year and clinched it at Busch Stadium on the final day of the season as the Cardinals, who ended with an identical record, settled for the wild card because the Astros had a 12-5 head-to-head record.

    "They played unbelievable,'' Houston's Craig Biggio said. "They've been sweeping teams, and they never gave us a chance to get close.''

    Hunter drove in all three runs for the Astros with a run-scoring single in the third and a two-run homer in the fifth.

    Two-run innings in the first and second gave the Cardinals a quick 4-0 lead. Fernando Vina provided an immediate spark when he tripled off the wall against Pete Munro (5-5), and scored on Marrero's single.

    Tino Martinez added an RBI single and Pujols hit a two-run single with two outs in the second. Rolen added an RBI single in the fourth.

    Marrero and Jim Edmonds hit consecutive homers in the sixth off rookie Jeriome Robertson and after Pujols flied out, Rolen hit his 29th to make it 8-3. All three players gave curtain calls to a half-filled yet noisy crowd at Busch Stadium.

    Rick White (5-6), the Cardinals' fourth pitcher, worked a scoreless seventh for the win. Released earlier this year by the Rockies, White has allowed one unearned run in 18 1/3 innings with the Cardinals since being called up Aug. 24.

    Munro lost for the second straight time to the Cardinals, allowing five runs on nine hits in four innings.

    "Being realistic about it, they're as good as anyone in the National League,'' Munro said. "They will be formidable for anybody.''

    Game notes

    This is the second time in franchise history that the Cardinals have qualified for the postseason three straight years. The other time was 1942-44. ... The Cardinals have hit back-to-back homers nine times this season, including the last three games. ... Marrero's homer off Robertson was his 16th of the season, but first off a left-hander. ... The Cardinals have hit 14 homers in their last four games. ... Hunter has seven multihit games in his last 14 starts. ... Marrero, who drew an intentional walk in the seventh, also set a career best by scoring four runs.

    Copyright by STATS LLC and The Associated Press