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Posted at 10:48 AM ET, 09/29/2011

Cardinals claim NL wild card as Braves lose in 13 innings to complete collapse

How did it all go so terribly wrong for Alex Gonzalez (left), Martin Prado and the Atlanta Braves? (Tami Chappell - Reuters)
At some point during the 11th or 12th inning of Wednesday’s do-or-die Phillies-Braves game, the St. Louis Cardinals told reporters they had seen enough. They were going to hop on their plane and head back to St. Louis knowing they’d either be playing on their home field Thursday night (in a one-game playoff if the Braves won) or get an early start on flying out to Philadelphia to start their NL division series.

No champagne in the clubhouse? Really?

Yeah right.

As soon as Brian Schneider crossed home plate on Hunter Pence’s broken-bat single in the top of the 13th, camera’s in the visiting clubhouse in Houston showed Cardinals players jumping with joy as team staff began Saran-wrapping the room.

Behind a two-hitter from Chris Carpenter, the Redbirds took care of business with a no-doubt 8-0 blowout of the worst team in baseball. Meanwhile the Braves appeared to have their finale with Philly locked up when they handed the ball to projected NL rookie of the year closer Craig Kimbrel with a 3-2 lead in the top of the ninth. But with all that has gone so miserably wrong for Atlanta in the month of September, it was never going to be easy.

Kimbrel — he of the 4.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a new rookie record for saves (46) — proceeded to give up a single, three walks and Chase Utley’s sacrifice fly to tie the game. Four innings later Pence drove in the winning run and the Braves’ epic collapse was complete.
St. Louis pitcher Chris Carpenter earned this Budweiser bath. (Bob Levey - Getty Images)

More than an hour after the Cardinals had assured themselves of at least one more game this season, the Braves watched theirs die on a double-play ball off the bat of Freddie Freeman. Just over one month ago they led these same Cardinals by 10 1/2 games and on the morning of Sept. 6, that lead was still a comfortable 8 1/2.

“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 got what they needed from top pitcher Tim Hudson — 6 1/3 innings of two-run ball that gave one of the best bullpens in the majors a chance to close it out. But in a month that saw the team go 9-18, including a five-game losing streak to end the season, there was no such thing as a sure thing for Atlanta.

If there’s one source of comfort for a trendy pick to win the NL East in the spring, it’s that they have company in the Boston Red Sox, whose dramatic downfall was even more stunning.

The Cardinals open their series with the Phillies on Saturday. The Milwaukee Brewers host the Arizona Diamondbacks in the other division series which also begins Saturday.

Here’s the full division series schedule.

More wild-card Wednesday coverage:

Photo gallery: Scenes from Wednesday’s four games

Braves complete a colossal collapse, lose 4-3 in 13 innings

Red Sox fall, Rays grab berth

Boswell: Wild night ends with two out

Final major league standings

By  |  10:48 AM ET, 09/29/2011

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