CARDS PLAY ON

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Ryan Theriot and the Cardinals celebrate clinching the NL Wild Card. (David J. Phillip/AP)

HOUSTON - Chris Carpenter came through like an ace and the St. Louis Cardinals earned the NL wild card, beating the Houston Astros, 8-0, last night and then watching the Braves lose to the Phillies in extra innings.

The Cardinals and Atlanta began the day even in the wild-card race. When St. Louis finished, the Braves were tied with Philadelphia in extra innings.

Carpenter (11-9) struck out 11 and allowed two hits in his 15th career complete-game shutout as St. Louis kept up its improbable September charge. The Cardinals won for the 23rd time in 31 games, having trailed Atlanta by 10 1/2 games on Aug. 25.

"We had nothing to lose. We were already out of it," Carpenter said. "People were telling us we were done. We decided to go out and play and not embarrass ourselves and do what we can. We played ourselves back into it."

The Cardinals poured onto the field after Carpenter fielded J.D. Martinez's weak grounder for the final out. The celebration was brief and muted, as the team raced into the clubhouse to watch the end of the game in Atlanta.

"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 teams entered yesterday's regular-season finales with 89-72 records.

Albert Pujols and Lance Berkman drove in runs with singles, and David Freese doubled to left-center 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.

Carpenter handled the rest.

He had struggled at Minute Maid Park lately, going 0-3 with a 4.62 ERA in his last five starts here, but he was in total command from the start, striking out five of the first nine hitters he faced.

He also had an RBI single in the third to drive in Freese.

Freese led off the fifth with a double to right center, the Cardinals' 10th hit of the game. Myers, 4-0 with a 1.24 ERA in his last five starts, hadn't allowed more than nine hits in a start since Aug. 6.

Freese later scored on Schumaker's groundout to shortstop Clint Barmes for a 7-0 lead, equaling the most runs given up by Myers in 33 starts this season. Wilton Lopez replaced Myers for the start of the sixth.

Only 3 weeks ago, the Cardinals had virtually lost all hope.

"There was absolute doubt from us," shortstop Nick Punto said. "I remember early on in September, we were like, 'Let's just finish up strong for the fans. Let's give them something to come out and watch.' "