AP Sports Writer
ST. LOUIS (AP) -- This time last year, the St. Louis Cardinals had no chance to exhale and things ended up working out pretty well.
Still, they didn't want to go through that tension again.
Instead of hustling off somewhere for an elimination game, the NL Central champion Cardinals earned a day off Monday. They can savor a six-game winning streak that gave them 97 wins, tied with Boston for the most in the majors, and home-field advantage for the first two rounds of the postseason.
Ace Adam Wainwright starts the division series opener Thursday and the 19-game winner is on track to make two starts if needed. After working out Tuesday, they'll watch the Pirates and Reds play their aces in the wild-card game.
"You don't want to be in that game," Lance Lynn said after working the division clincher. "We're happy we don't have to be in that."
Before and after the Cardinals took charge in the final month of the season, manager Mike Matheny downplayed the importance of winning the division. It was most important, he kept saying, to simply get to October.
Players put enough on their shoulders anyway.
"They didn't want us to get wrapped up in that deal thinking that we had to do this or that, but I think it's definitely a big deal," leadoff man Matt Carpenter said. "September is a big month for a lot of clubs and I would be willing to say that was our best month. We're hitting our stride and the timing is perfect."
The Cardinals finished a game ahead of the Braves for the NL's best record despite taking a few chances in the finale. Rusty Jake Westbrook got a ceremonial one-inning start on Sunday and didn't disappoint, Matt Holliday was held out to preserve a .300 average and catcher Yadier Molina was replaced before the first pitch so a sellout crowd could give him an ovation.
Last year, the Cardinals grabbed the second wild card on the final day of the season and almost made it to the World Series.
They won at Atlanta and rallied from six runs down at Washington in the deciding game of the division series. Their bid for a repeat title evaporated when they squandered a 3-1 lead in the NLCS against the Giants.
Whatever happens this fall, it's the scenario they've worked for.
"We're trying to keep our eye on the goal, and need people realizing this is a great reward for a lot of hours, a lot of days, a lot of months of sacrifice," Matheny said.
Wainwright (19-9, 2.94 ERA) is one of two holdovers from the rotation last October and is back in top form, going 4-0 in his last five starts. He'll be on regular rest for Game 1 Thursday coming off light duty in his final regular-season start, and should be ready for a Game 5 if needed.
No doubt he'd prefer to face the Pirates. The Reds pounded Wainwright in consecutive starts in late August and early September.
"Those guys have been neck and neck with us the whole season," Carpenter said. "So, I think it's fitting that we're going to match up with one of them."
The Cardinals hit an astounding .330 with runners in scoring position, led by Allen Craig's major league-leading .454 mark. Carpenter had a breakout season by leading the majors in hits, runs, doubles and multi-hit games, and Molina had a career-best 80 RBIs along with the usual Gold Glove-level game behind the plate.
St. Louis also had a major league-high 36 wins from rookies, and Molina's presence has been invaluable for all the kids who've stepped up. The Cardinals have allowed a total of six runs in their last six games and nearly shut out the Cubs over the final weekend.
Shelby Miller led all rookies with 15 wins, learning along the way to trust more than his fastball. Joe Kelly capitalized on a fill-in gig for the second straight year and Michael Wacha nearly no-hit the Nationals last week.
"The rookies on this team have done an unbelievable job," the 22-year-old Miller said. "There's a ton of us, so it's pretty impressive. This is one of a kind."
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