Over 1,110 kilometres in Atlanta, the Braves stared out of their dugout in disbelief.
It took until the final day of the regular season, but the Cardinals finally reeled in the Braves, once a seemingly playoff-bound team, and won the National League wild-card race with an 8-0 win over Houston on Wednesday.
The Cardinals got their playoff spot when the Braves fell to Philadelphia 4-3 in 13 innings.
St. Louis trailed Atlanta by 10 1/2 games on Aug. 25, then won 23 of the last 31 games to finish its improbable charge. The Braves fuelled the Cardinals' surge by losing 18 of their last 27.
"We came from so far back," La Russa said. "It's nice to be part of history because the club deserved it. We were great for four months, and we had a little bad period. We really came charging back. Adversity was something that we embraced."
The Cardinals will open the post-season on Saturday at NL East champion Philadelphia. In the other NL playoff matchup, Arizona visits Milwaukee.
"We're just glad we have a chance to play in October," Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols said.
Elsewhere in the NL it was: Milwaukee 7 Pittsburgh 3; Los Angeles 7 Arizona 5; New York 3 Cincinnati 0; Colorado 6 San Francisco 3; Washington 3 Florida 1; and San Diego 9 Chicago 2.
At Houston, St. Louis made quick work of the punchless Astros, then rushed back into the clubhouse to watch the end of the Atlanta game. With the Braves two outs from defeat, a clubhouse attendant wheeled in a dolly stocked with cardboard boxes of beer.
And when Freddie Freeman rolled into a season-ending double play, the party began. The Cardinals passed out black caps with "2011 MLB Playoffs" emblazoned on top and black T-shirts with NL wild-card logos.
Within minutes, the floor of the clubhouse was littered with bottle caps and corks.
"It's a great feeling to be able to come from so far down," former Astro Lance Berkman said. "We felt like we had a run like this in us, and we executed it just in the nick of time. And here we are."
Chris Carpenter (11-9) pitched like an ace, striking out 11 and allowing two hits in his 15th career complete-game shutout. The Cardinals poured onto the field after Carpenter fielded J.D. Martinez's weak grounder for the final out.
"It was exciting, there's no doubt about it," Carpenter said. "The way these guys have played the past month-and-a-half has been amazing, every single night grinding, playing their butts off, not giving up.
"We continued to give ourselves an opportunity and now we are here."
The Braves and Cardinals entered Wednesday's regular-season finales with 89-72 records.
Atlanta's game started an hour earlier, but the Cardinals virtually took away any hope for a Houston victory in the first inning, jumping to a 5-0 lead against Brett Myers (7-14).
Pujols and Berkman drove in runs with singles, and David Freese doubled to left-centre before Myers even recorded an out. Berkman scored when Skip Schumaker's hard grounder ricocheted off Myers' glove for an infield hit, and Freese came home on Nick Punto's single to right.
"I'm glad that we contributed early in the game," Pujols said, "and Carpenter obviously took them out and took care of business."
At Atlanta, Braves closer Craig Kimbrel surrendered the tying run in the ninth, and Hunter Pence came through with a two-out, run-scoring single in the 13th as the Phillies ended Atlanta's season.
"This is tough," Braves catcher Brian McCann said. "This is one of the worst feelings I've ever had coming off a baseball field."
For the Braves, this one might hurt as bad as all those post-season losses in the 1990s and early 2000s.
"It was tough to be so close and then have the feeling like it was falling out of your hands," Kimbrel said. "And that's the feeling I have now."
The Braves had this one. And they blew it, losing five straight to end the regular season and going 9-18 in the final month.
"I can't fathom it," said Freeman, who was still wearing his No. 5 jersey almost an hour after the game, as if he couldn't believe he'd be taking it off for the final time. "The Cardinals took care of business."
Riding a strong showing by starter Tim Hudson and a two-run homer by Uggla, Atlanta went to the ninth with a 3-2 lead and its record-setting rookie closer on the mound.
But the hard-throwing Kimbrel couldn't get the three outs needed for his 47th save and a trip to St. Louis for a one-game playoff Thursday night. He was all over the place, walking three, and Chase Utley's sacrifice fly tied it. The stocky right-hander couldn't even finish the inning, giving way to Kris Medlen.
"My mind was rushing," Kimbrel said. "Things started moving too fast. My head started moving too fast. My brain. I didn't put it together. It was just too late. ... When you walk guys, nothing good ever happens."
Medlen had pitched only one game in the big leagues all year after coming back from Tommy John surgery, but he got the third out in the ninth and breezed through the 10th as well. Unheralded Anthony Varvaro and Cristhian Martinez also pitched scoreless innings, but the Braves' punchless offence just couldn't produce another run in time.
Brewers 7 Pirates 3
At Milwaukee, Zack Greieke capped a perfect season at home to help Milwaukee clinch home-field advantage in the first round of playoffs.
Dodgers 7 Diamondbacks 5
At Phoenix, Matt Kemp hit a two-run homer to become the first Dodger in 70 years to lead the NL in home runs and RBIs.
Mets 3 Reds 0
At New York, Jose Reyes bunted for a base hit in the first inning against Cincinnati and was lifted for a pinch-runner but it was enough to give him the NL batting title with a .337 average.
Rockies 6 Giants 3
At San Francisco, Kevin Kouzmanoff had three hits and drove in two runs and Colorado sent the reigning World Series champions into an early off-season.
Nationals 3 Marlins 1
At Miami, Stephen Strasburg allowed one hit and struck out 10 in six scoreless innings to earn his first win since July 2010, and Florida bid their much-maligned stadium goodbye.
Padres 9 Cubs 2
At San Diego, Will Venable hit his first career grand slam and Nick Hundley hit a three-run shot to lift the normally punchless Padres to a season-ending victory.Suggest a correction