ST. LOUIS (AP) — The St. Louis Cardinals enter the playoffs with a deep lineup, one they pieced together during the season as they were carried once again by Albert Pujols.

His 32 homers and 87 RBIs at the All-Star break kept the Cardinals at or near the top of the NL Central until the reinforcements arrived, fueling the franchise’s drive to a division title that ended a two-year postseason drought. Without those big numbers, manager Tony La Russa believes they’d have been below .500 at the break.

“Albert did a heck of a job carrying us that first half,” La Russa said. “We had a winning team, right near or at first place, and he was the difference in the majority of those games.”

Regardless of what happens in the playoffs, when the offseason comes the Cardinals plan to approach both Matt Holliday, set for free agency, and Pujols, whose contract expires after a team option in 2011, about long-term extensions.

Holliday readily admits he is the complementary asset.

“I think he’s the best player of all time,” the left fielder said of Pujols. “Look at his first nine seasons and it would be hard to argue.”

Minus Pujols’ first-half domination, the Cardinals might not have been so aggressive, taking the plunge and bartering prospects for Holliday, Mark DeRosa and Julio Lugo.

St. Louis also got dominant pitching from Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter and Joel Pineiro, who have combined for 50 victories. The Cardinals really took off after acquiring Holliday from the Oakland Athletics for three top prospects on July 24 with a 32-11 spurt putting them ahead by double digits.

Lightly regarded before the season, St. Louis was the first team to clinch a division title.

The lineups La Russa is fielding now are nothing like the patchwork units of the first half, before the Cardinals finally lost hope of getting meaningful contributions from Troy Glaus (shoulder surgery) and Khalil Greene (social anxiety disorder). Much of the season La Russa batted the pitcher eighth, a gambit that made Pujols the de facto cleanup hitter after the first time through the order.

The last two months he’s been very productive if short of heroic on a nightly basis. Entering the final weekend he led the National League in home runs (47) and runs (121), and was third in average (.330) and RBIs (134).

The end result has been another typical season for Pujols, who has topped .300, 30 homers and 100 RBIs in all nine of his seasons, prompting the Sporting News to name him its baseball player of the decade earlier this month.

La Russa thinks his first baseman is a lock for a third NL MVP award, following successes in 2005 and ’08.

Holliday has been the perfect addition, averaging nearly an RBI per game since the deal, picking up the slack on days when Pujols hasn’t come through. The Cardinals have long had their eyes on the left fielder, who is hitting .372 at 4-year-old Busch Stadium.

Four of La Russa’s former players from his years in Oakland – Mike Gallego, Walt Weiss, Carney Lansford and Mark McGwire – watched Holliday often enough to give the manager a unanimous thumbs-up if the opportunity to acquire him ever presented itself.

“This guy is a run producer because he uses the whole field,” La Russa said. “He can handle all different kind of pitches and he’s aggressive with the opportunity. I’ve said all along, if we could ever get him on our club he would be important to us.”

Pujols has drawn a major league-leading 44 intentional walks, more than double what any other player has gotten and 10 more than the franchise record he set last year. But he only has 12 since the All-Star break, and went 19 games without one before the Brewers broke the string. Holliday made them pay by hitting a game-winning homer.

David Eckstein of the Padres, the 2006 World Series MVP with St. Louis, believes Pujols and Holliday are the best 1-2 punch in the majors.

“I can tell you this from personally having the opportunity to play with him, that anybody you put behind Pujols is going to be in that top two,” Eckstein said. “You have to choose which one, and you end up pitching to Albert first.

“That just enables him to swing the bat, and anytime he gets that opportunity you know what can happen.”

Pujols is quick to point out he’s had worthy lineup protection before, quickly mentioning Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen and Larry Walker. Just not quite like this, with DeRosa, a revived Ryan Ludwick and especially Holliday.

“That’s the whole idea, that I’m able to put up those numbers consistently,” Pujols said. “You have to make a pitch and not make a mistake because they’re going to make you pay.”

Instead of making the big guy do it all the time.


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