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Cards looking beyond NL Central title

Cards looking beyond NL Central title

DENVER -- Securing a division title is nice. It's a necessary first step. But in St. Louis, it's also expected. For a team whose expectations always include the National League pennant and the World Series championship, the heavy lifting is yet to begin. Playing in October is not enough. A successful season is defined by winning in October.

Over the coming week, the Cardinals will continue to position themselves for carrots like home-field advantage and more advantageous matchups in the postseason. They're in, though, so the main focus is not on the final seven games of the regular season, but on the games that follow. Positioning matters, but not quite as much as getting ready and staying sharp.

That is to say that while the Cardinals want to finish with the best record possible, they're not going to risk anyone's health or avoid resting a player who needs a rest in order to get it.

"If the guys that are going to play, play the games to the hilt, then you win as many as you can. ... You use common sense," manager Tony La Russa said. "It would be nice [to secure the best record], but, it's one of the things that happens. You try to do things right, to the best of your ability, and see what the win total is. You can't jeopardize health."

It's likely that the Cardinals will play either the Dodgers or the Rockies in the NL Division Series, but which team they play and where they start still are to be determined. There's also a very distant chance of them matching up with either the Braves, the Marlins or the Giants, if one of those teams sneaks in as the Wild Card, but such possibilities are remote.

Essentially, it breaks down like this: assuming that the Wild Card comes from the West Division -- and right now, that's the most likely occurrence -- then the Cardinals will either play the NL West champs or the Wild Card. In that case, if the Cardinals finish with a better record than the East champion (almost certainly the Phillies), then they would play the Wild Card -- currently Colorado. If they finish with a worse record than the Phillies, they would play the West champion -- currently the Dodgers.

The scenarios are flipped if somehow the Wild Card comes from the East. In that case, whoever had a better record between the Cardinals and the West champion would play the Wild Card, and the lesser of those two records would play the East champion. It gets a bit complicated, but as of now, the Cardinals would be playing the Dodgers in the opening round, starting at Dodger Stadium.

It's a curious choice, because in theory, you'd always rather play the lesser team. But in practice, the Cards have had the Dodgers' number, while the Rockies swept them in St. Louis earlier this season. Given the difficulty of playing at Coors Field, a case could be made that the Redbirds would rather play the Dodgers than the Rockies, regardless of the records.

"Whoever we face is going to be tough," said Albert Pujols. "One thing is, in the postseason, when you get there, everything starts from zero. It doesn't matter how good a success you had in the season against a team, or how good a success another team has against us. Everything starts from zero and anything can happen. Whoever wins 11 games is the world champion."

And there's also another wrinkle. The Cardinals and Rockies last played in early June -- before St. Louis acquired Matt Holliday, Mark DeRosa, Julio Lugo and John Smoltz, all of whom have certainly helped strengthen their club. This weekend's series against the Rockies at Coors may provide a more telling look at how the two clubs match up.

"We faced them a long time ago," said starter Adam Wainwright. "We're a different team now."

As for home field, it can be broken down very simply. If the Cardinals finish with the best record in the National League, then of course they would have home field in both the Division Series and the League Championship Series. If they simply finish with a better record than one of the other two division winners, they would have home field in the first round.

However, if they finish with the third-best record of the three division winners, then they would open on the road. That hasn't been much of a problem recently, since St. Louis has been a good road team of late. But still, playing at home is an edge, and one worth noting. The Cardinals are 46-32 at home this year, and 44-33 on the road.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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