ST. LOUIS -- Had players followed the orders of their manager, Tuesday's clinch would have come quietly, quite in contrast to the raucous celebration the Cardinals set off upon grabbing the National League Wild Card last season.
Following a 3-1 loss to the Reds on Tuesday, Matheny instructed his players to go home. They had a game to prepare for, he reminded them. A game that, at the time, looked like it could be quite critical.
Turns out, no one listened. Nor will Game 162 matter.
Two-and-a-half hours after players opted not to follow the directive, the yelling and hugging and champagne-spraying commenced inside the Busch Stadium home clubhouse as soon as the Giants wrapped up a 4-3 win over the Dodgers. The loss eliminated Los Angeles from playoff contention, leaving the Cardinals as the winner of the second NL Wild Card.
"Whether you win the game that day or someone else loses, it's the same thing," Cardinals chief executive officer Bill DeWitt said. "You've earned the right to get into the postseason, and that's the big deal. They were excited. It was a nice celebration. Just perfect."
Matheny, who circled the clubhouse to talk to players individually, conceded that the night ended just as it should have.
"They don't listen well," joked Matheny, who was donning a playoff hat and T-shirt. "I was hoping they'd go home and really get locked in on a game tomorrow. I think they realized how special this is. We talked about this before -- you can't take these for granted.
"Everybody was here. It was done right. They enjoyed the moment after 161 games and going through the ups and downs. It was perfect."
Changes to baseball's postseason earlier this season allowed for a fifth NL team to sneak into the postseason. As that team, the Cardinals will go on the road to play Atlanta, which won the first Wild Card, on Friday. A game time for that one-game playoff has not yet been announced.
The Cardinals went 1-5 against the Braves this year.
"We snuck in again," said Chris Carpenter, several hours after making his third start of the season. "But you know what, that's what happens. You get an opportunity, and that's what you're looking forward to. Everybody in that clubhouse is excited about the situation we're in, excited about our ballclub. I think with the way we've been playing, we have a good shot."
After pitching the Cardinals into the postseason last year with a victory on the final day of the regular season, Carpenter took the mound Tuesday with the opportunity to do so again. There would be no repeat performance this time, however, and that stalled the opportunity to celebrate.
Scott Rolen erased the Cardinals' early 1-0 lead with a first-pitch solo homer in the fourth inning to tie the game. Carpenter, making his first home start of the season, then couldn't contain the Reds in the sixth.
A leadoff walk to Joey Votto and back-to-back hits by Ryan Ludwick and Jay Bruce gave Cincinnati its first lead of the night. A one-out single by Dioner Navarro pushed home another Reds run.
"I did everything I could to continue to execute and make good pitches and keep my team in the game," Carpenter said. "Unfortunately that inning got away from me a little bit, and there were some pitches over the plate, and they hit them. They did their job."
Carpenter did finish the sixth, but insufficient run support left him in line to fall to 0-2 in the three starts he's made since returning from thoracic outlet syndrome. He threw 90 pitches on Tuesday, leaving Carpenter plenty stretched out to help in the playoffs, should the Cardinals extend the season long enough for him to get another chance.
In his three outings, Carpenter has seemingly been good enough -- allowing seven earned runs in 17 innings -- though not yet his dominant self. St. Louis has lost all three games.
"My stuff is good enough to go out and get outs," Carpenter said. "Obviously, I've done it. The consistency of it as the game goes along has to get better. I just have to get better as the game goes along. That's something for me to build off again."
The Cardinals would need to advance to the NL Division Series in order for Carpenter to get another start in 2012. No pitcher in Cardinals history has won more postseason games than Carpenter, who has a career 9-2 record.
Offensively, the Cardinals did little against Reds starter Mat Latos, whom they had battered around in the past. The Cincinnati right-hander had allowed at least seven earned runs in four of his six career outings against the Cardinals. This time, he allowed one.
The Cardinals manufactured that run in the first, which began with a Jon Jay double. Jay move to third on a groundout and trotted home on Matt Holliday's sacrifice fly.
St. Louis scattered baserunners the rest of the night but had few strong run-scoring chances with less than two out. The club left runners on the corners in both the second and seventh innings. The Cards finished the night 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position.
Hitting with runners in scoring position has not been one the team's strong suits this year, though the offense has been more successful in those spots recently. Timelier hitting, the strength of the starting pitching and the stability of the bullpen all came together to help the Cardinals reel off 11 wins in their last 15 games.
And it leaves them guaranteed with at least two more.
"Quite a ride," general manager John Mozeliak said. "It's a wonderful accomplishment. I couldn't be more proud of these guys, and especially Mike Matheny and what he was able to do with his leadership this year."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.