The Chicago Cubs were able to overcome a rough start to the final week of the season to become NL Central champions for the first time in four years.
With the division crown in their possession, the Cubs will continue their season-ending series against the lowly Cincinnati Reds on Saturday at Great American Ballpark.
After being swept in a three-game series by Florida to begin the week, Chicago (84-76) bounced back with a 6-0 victory over the Reds on Friday and clinched their first division title since 2003 when second-place Milwaukee lost 6-3 to San Diego for its third straight defeat later in the evening.
“A sense of accomplishment, of sorts,” first-year Cubs manager Lou Piniella told the team’s official Web site. “It was really good to see.”
Chicago, which invested $300 million on its roster in the offseason after finishing 66-96 and last in the Central in 2006, will reach the postseason in a year where it went 10-14 in April, overcame physical confrontations among teammates and trailed the then-division leading Brewers by 8 1/2 games on June 23.
The Cubs have since gone 51-37, and were able to hang on this week as Milwaukee was unable to take advantage of Chicago’s struggles in Florida.
“We’ve got some nice talent here,” Piniella said. “At the same time, we got into a situation where the team in front of us gave us a chance to get back in the race. We said, ‘All right,’ and we got after it.”
Friday, Alfonso Soriano hit his sixth leadoff homer this month, giving him 13 in September to match Ernie Banks’ record of 50 years ago. Soriano, who has 32 homers, is batting .303 with 24 RBIs this month and will lead the Cubs on their quest for the franchise’s first World Series title since 1908.
“I’m very proud of myself,” Soriano said. “I’ve never had a good September. This time, my team needed it.”
Derrek Lee hit a two-run homer and Jacque Jones added three RBIs on Friday for the Cubs, who can relax in their final two games before postseason play begins next week. Their opponent is to be determined.
“We’re as good as anybody going into the playoffs,” closer Ryan Dempster said. “We’ve played as good as anybody. Since the All-Star break, we’ve been playing great.”
Jones, who will be counted on to produce in the playoffs, is 6-for-10 with six RBIs in his last three games.
Lee, meanwhile, has homered in four of his last six games.
Rich Hill (10-8, 4.05 ERA) will take the mound on six days’ rest for Chicago on Saturday. He allowed three runs and five hits in five innings of a 9-5 Cubs’ victory over Pittsburgh last Saturday.
The left-hander, who is trying for his third straight winning decision, is 2-2 with a 4.28 ERA in six starts against the Reds and 1-0 with a 3.24 ERA in three starts in 2007.
Cincinnati (71-89) will counter with ace Aaron Harang (16-5, 3.70) as it tries to avoid losing seven games in a row for the first time since losing eight straight in 2005.
Harang again looks for a career high in wins after he allowed five runs and 10 hits in seven innings of a 5-4 loss at San Francisco on Sunday.
The right-hander is 8-2 with a 4.43 ERA in 14 starts against the Cubs and 3-1 in five starts against them this season, but could still be pitching in front of thousands of Cubs fan who made the trip to Cincinnati.
“I’m not real happy about that,” interim Reds manager Pete Mackanin said. “Nobody likes letting the opposition fans raise the roof in your own ballpark. It’s a little unsettling. You’d like to quiet them down and make them a little nervous.”