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Cardinals catcher Mike Matheny is out for the season after slicing his right ring finger with a hunting knife Friday, hampering St. Louis' playoff hopes.

Matheny cut himself with the knife, a birthday gift he had just opened, and was in surgery as shocked teammates learned the news in a team meeting about 3 1/2 hours before a game against Cincinnati.

Matheny was putting the knife in its sheath and it went right through, severing two flexor tendons and a nerve, Cardinals spokesman Brian Bartow said.

The team anticipates he'll make a full recovery for next season. The loss could be a serious blow to the NL Central champions. Matheny, a contender for a Gold Glove, threw out 51 percent (46 for 90) of would-be basestealers and hit .261 with 22 doubles, six homers and 47 RBIs.

"To me, he's our MVP," closer Dave Veres said. "We couldn't have won without him, and I'm sure a lot of guys feel the same way."

The backups at the position are Carlos Hernandez, acquired just before the trade deadline, and Eli Marrero. Hernandez, who was on the San Diego Padres' 1998 World Series team, has been bothered by a bad back, and Marrero has played sparingly after missing about two months because of a torn ligament in his left thumb.

Marrero played Friday and manager Tony La Russa said Hernandez would start today. La Russa wouldn't reveal his postseason plans for the position.

Pirates to formally fire Lamont

PITTSBURGH -- Gene Lamont isn't talking about his firing as the Pittsburgh Pirates' manager -- for now.

The Pirates don't want Lamont discussing his dismissal Sunday, the last day of the season and his last day on the job, so as not to distract from ceremonies marking their final game in Three Rivers Stadium. Lamont will talk to reporters at 11 a.m. Monday, an hour before owner Kevin McClatchy and General Manager Cam Bonifay formally announce Lamont's firing.

Lamont has known for several weeks he would not be rehired as the Pirates move into PNC Park next season. Pittsburgh will complete its second 90-loss season in three years Sunday.

Around the majors

* The Chicago White Sox don't know if projected Game One starter Mike Sirotka will be ready when the playoffs open. The left-hander hyperextended his left elbow Thursday. An MRI exam Friday showed no ligament damage, although Sirotka said only one of the many photos taken was clear. He may have another MRI.

* The Milwaukee Brewers confirmed Friday that their top minor-league pitching prospect, Olympic hero Ben Sheets, will be in their five-man rotation next season. Sheets, 21, tossed a three-hitter in Team USA's 4-0 victory over Cuba in the gold-medal game Wednesday.

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