Cardinals primed to overtake Braves

Even as they delighted in the Cardinals’ victory on Sunday, some among the happy Busch Stadium crowd had to be thinking the unthinkable.

Had Albert Pujols just played his final home game in St. Louis?

And was this it for Tony La Russa, too?

To which I would reply: Fear not, Redbird devotees. You have not seen the last of No. 5’s steely glare or No. 10’s tinted shades. Pujols and La Russa will wear the home whites in St. Louis again — because, contrary to what the schedule says, Sunday afternoon’s 3-2 triumph over the Cubs will not stand as the Cardinals’ final home game this season.

They are going to the postseason — or, at the very least, a one-game playoff against the Atlanta Braves on Thursday for the National League wild card. The Cardinals would host that tiebreaker, by virtue of their 5-1 record against the Braves this season.

And if it goes to Game 163, St. Louis will win there, too.

Yes, I’m the same guy who declared in spring training that the Braves would defeat the New York Yankees in the World Series. But here I am, in a Charles Woodson backpedal. Atlanta has swooned so badly in September that I have no choice but to withdraw my endorsement.

The Braves awoke on Sept. 1 with an 8 1/2-game lead in the NL wild-card standings. They are 9-15 since, including Sunday’s loss in Washington. That’s sub-.400 ball — a streak of futility that’s difficult for any team to “sustain,” let alone a contender that supposedly has excellent pitching.

Suddenly, the Braves find themselves in a UFC bout for what should have been an inevitable postseason bid. Their wild-card lead over the Cardinals is down to one, with three games to play. And the pitching matchup for Monday’s series opener against the Phillies doesn’t exactly portend an easy win.

For Atlanta: Randall Delgado.

For Philly: Cliff Lee.

Yes, the Boston Red Sox have a collapsing cousin.

How did this happen? How does it ever happen? As with the Red Sox, the Braves’ pitching has gone to rot like year-old bologna.

Just two months ago, the Braves had three pitchers on the All-Star team (Jair Jurrjens, Craig Kimbrel, and Jonny Venters) and two others (Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson) with compelling cases. But none of them is having a strong September.

In fact, Jurrjens and Hanson aren’t having Septembers at all. Hanson has a slight rotator-cuff tear in his throwing shoulder. Jurrjens has a bone bruise in his right knee. Neither has pitched this month. Neither is scheduled to pitch against the Phillies this week — which suddenly is all that matters.

The combined absences of Jurrjens and Hanson turned the rotation from an asset to liability, almost overnight. Rookie Mike Minor didn’t complete the fifth inning in Sunday’s loss to Washington — and the rotation’s September ERA actually went down, to a still-high 4.47. Meanwhile, stud relievers Kimbrel and Venters have lost games down the stretch — a consequence, perhaps, of heavy use during the first half by manager Fredi Gonzalez.

Atlanta’s probables for the Philadelphia series include Delgado, a rookie who has impressed; Derek Lowe, a veteran who hasn’t; and Hudson, who wasn’t supposed to pitch until Game 1 of the NL Division Series. With Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels, the Phillies have an edge in experience and/or recent performance in every game.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals have three veterans lined up to start their series against the worst-in-baseball Houston Astros: Jaime Garcia, Jake Westbrook, and Chris Carpenter. La Russa should feel very good about his rotation, which, according to STATS LLC, has posted the lowest ERA (2.59) of any starting five in the majors this month.

Oh, by the way: Pujols has an OPS above 1.000 this month.

In short, there is every reason to believe the Cardinals will fare one game better than the Braves over the next three days.

It should be noted that injuries have played key roles in Atlanta’s plunge. Brian McCann, in particular, hasn’t hit for power — or hit much of anything, really — since returning from a strained oblique last month. Martin Prado and Jason Heyward, who also spent time on the disabled list this season, have had minimal impact during the most crucial month.

Misfortune explains part of it, too. On Sunday, Michael Bourn hit a potential run-scoring liner in the fifth inning — only to have second baseman Danny Espinosa snare it for an out. The threat ended with the next batter. Atlanta was shut out, 3-0, by Ross Detwiler and three relievers.

Right now, though, the Braves shouldn’t need to rely on good luck. They simply haven’t pitched well enough this month. Now Prince Albert is hitting, the Cardinals are believing and La Russa is massaging a cobbled-together bullpen as only he can.

Not long ago, Atlanta vs. Boston was a trendy World Series pick. Now, it sounds like a mid-March game in the 2012 Grapefruit League. And after the regular season ends Wednesday, that may be all that remains for either team.