DENVER (AP) -- Matt Holliday celebrated another playoff clincher at Coors Field, only this time it was with the St. Louis Cardinals and not the Colorado Rockies.
Jason LaRue, subbing at catcher for injured All-Star Yadier Molina, homered off Ubaldo Jimenez to break a seventh-inning tie and the Cardinals clinched the NL Central crown when they beat the Rockies 6-3 Saturday night behind Adam Wainwright's 19th victory.
Colorado's lead in the NL wild-card race shrunk to 2 1/2 games over the Atlanta Braves, who beat Washington 11-5 Saturday.
The Cardinals, the first major league team to win its division, are headed back to the playoffs for the first time since winning the 2006 World Series. Led by the 1-2 punch of slugger Albert Pujols and Holliday, whom they acquired from Oakland at midseason, the Cardinals have been alone atop the division since Aug. 7.
They became the third team to secure a playoff spot, joining the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers.
Wainwright (19-8) allowed three runs, two earned, and 10 hits over eight innings while also contributing a pair of two-out doubles. He escaped an eighth-inning jam by striking out Clint Barmes and pinch-hitter Jason Giambi, both looking, to strand runners on first and second. The right-hander walked one and struck out 11.
Ryan Ludwick pinch-hit for Wainwright in the ninth and cracked a two-run homer, his 22nd, off Matt Daley, giving closer Ryan Franklin a three-run cushion to work with.
He nearly needed every bit of it to record his 38th save in 43 tries.
Franklin gave up an infield single to Carlos Gonzalez and walked Todd Helton one out later, bringing the potential tying run to the plate in Troy Tulowitzki, who hit into a fielder's choice. With runners at second and third, Spilborghs grounded out to second.
Whew! The Cardinals finally had their celebration, and manager Tony La Russa tossed his cap into the stands as a throng of red-clad fans gathered behind the third-base dugout.
With their magic number stuck at one since a loss to Houston on Wednesday, the Cardinals watched the Chicago Cubs win the first three games of a four-game series at San Francisco, denying the Cardinals the NL Central crown from afar.
After losing 2-1 at Colorado on Friday night, the Cardinals watched the Cubs beat the Giants on the clubhouse television, then filed somberly out of the ballpark, with shortstop Brendan Ryan declaring, "I'm not going to shower until we clinch this."
Before their game in Denver, the Cardinals tuned in to the Cubs-Giants day game but quickly lost interest as Chicago built an early lead and won 6-2.
La Russa insisted he was glad the Cardinals didn't back into playoffs so they could capture the crown on their own.
"We've been pulling for (the Cubs) because you'd like to win the game that gets you in," La Russa said.
St. Louis won for the first time in six tries over Colorado, their possible first-round opponent. They had been outscored by the Rockies 35-10.
Holliday, who spent a decade in the Rockies' organization, leading them to their only NL pennant in 2007 before being traded away last winter, keyed a three-run outburst in the first inning off Jimenez (14-12), who gave up four runs on seven hits over seven innings.
He drove in a run with a single and scored on Molina's single. In between, Rick Ankiel hit a hot grounder that bounced out of first baseman Helton's glove. An alert Jimenez scooped it up and beat Ankiel to the bag, but Pujols scored from third on the play.
Holliday was at the center of one of the enduring images from the Rockies' remarkable 21-1 run-up to their World Series appearance in 2007. He scored the winning run in Colorado's 13-inning victory over San Diego in the NL wild-card tiebreaker that year, dribbling his chin though the batter's box on his headfirst slide to the plate.
Now he has another special memory at the ballpark on Blake Street.
The Rockies pulled to 3-1 in the third when Helton scored from second base on third baseman Joe Thurston's throwing error. They tied it on Brad Hawpe's two-run homer, his 21st, in the fourth, one pitch after plate umpire Dan Iassogna turned and hollered at Rockies manager Jim Tracy.
Molina was struck on the left knee by foul ball off the bat of the next hitter, Barmes, and had to leave the game. The Cardinals said he had a bruise and was day-to-day. He was replaced by LaRue.
The Rockies put a runner at third with two outs in the sixth but Wainwright struck out Carlos Gonzalez to end the threat, and LaRue led off the next inning with his first homer since May 7, giving St. Louis a 4-3 lead.
After going 38-14 at home since Tracy took over May 29, the Rockies have lost three of five on this nine-game homestand, allowing the surging Braves to inject some drama into the wild-card race.
NOTES: Tracy said relievers Alan Embree (leg) and Manny Corpas (elbow) had encouraging outings in Arizona and he wouldn't rule out a return this season for either one. ... Rockies RHP Aaron Cook said he felt no discomfort in his throwing shoulder a day after throwing five scoreless innings in his first start since Aug. 21.
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)