Final week a challenge for La Russa

Final week a challenge for La Russa

DENVER -- In any sport, this is one of the most challenging points in the season for a coach or manager. The Cardinals have clinched the National League Central with a week still to play. The challenge is how to handle the remaining games.

They aren't completely meaningless, to start with. The Cardinals are in a tight race with the Dodgers, and especially the Phillies, for home-field advantage in the NL Division Series and possibly the League Championship Series. Plus there's the matter of simple pride, and respect for the game.

On the other hand, players do need to get their rest. The six-month season is a difficult grind, and a breather can be a huge boon for a beaten-up player.

When the Cardinals begin a three-game series in Cincinnati on Tuesday, those are the issues that will face manager Tony La Russa. He'll be looking for a day or two here or there for some of his key players, while also hoping to secure home-field advantage and trying not to let his team get stagnant.

On Sunday, it was a bit simpler. Even following the clinching celebration on Saturday night, La Russa felt an obligation to put out the most representative lineup that he could. That's because the Rockies are in a playoff race of their own.

"I think there's probably a guy or two who would not have played" if Sunday's game had not been against a contender, La Russa said. "We're still trying to win the games, and we're still trying to get home field, but I think there are a couple guys that were pushed in there."

Now in Cincinnati, he'll look for those days. Some decisions will be made for him, though. Catcher Yadier Molina is still recovering from a bruised left knee and may be out until later in the series. And outfielder Matt Holliday missed Sunday's game due to illness.

Pitching matchup
STL: RHP Joel Pineiro (15-11, 3.24 ERA)
Pineiro has two starts left, and he needs two more wins for a career high. It would be a sweet accomplishment at age 31 for Pineiro, who has recast himself as a sinkerballing ground-ball-getter in his 10th big league season. He's on track to start Game 3 of the postseason, which might have been hard to envision for anyone but Pineiro himself back in Spring Training.

CIN: RHP Homer Bailey (6-5, 5.02 ERA)
Bailey didn't have his best stuff during a 12-2 win over the Pirates, but he was more than good enough to work six quality innings. He allowed four hits and three walks. Lacking a putaway pitch, he did not strike anyone out. Because he lacked zip on his fastball, Bailey and catcher Corky Miller resorted to throwing his offspeed stuff more, namely the curveball. It worked well. Over his last seven starts, Bailey is 4-1 with a 1.99 ERA.

Tidbits
Ryan Ludwick is 3-for-8 against Bailey with two doubles and a home run. ... Ramon Hernandez is 9-for-29 (.310) against Pineiro with three extra-base hits. ... The Cardinals are 7-6 against the Reds this year, their worst mark against any division foe.

Tickets
 Buy tickets now to catch the game in person.

On the Internet
 MLB.TV
 Gameday Audio
•  Gameday
•  Official game notes

On television
• FS-M

On radio
• KTRS 550

Up next
• Wednesday: Cardinals (John Smoltz, 3-7, 5.96) at Reds (Bronson Arroyo, 14-13, 3.95), 6:10 p.m. CT
• Thursday: Cardinals (Chris Carpenter, 16-4, 2.30) at Reds (Matt Maloney, 2-4, 4.87), 11:35 a.m. CT
• Friday: Cardinals (Adam Wainwright, 19-8, 2.58) vs. Brewers (Braden Looper, 13-7, 5.10), 7:15 p.m. CT

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