CHICAGO (AP)—The St. Louis Cardinals clinched, so where was the bubbly?
On ice. That’s where it will stay until manager Tony La Russa’s team ends up with more wins than the Houston Astros can possibly muster in the NL Central.
“We understand we’re officially in October baseball,” La Russa said after a 6-1 victory over the Chicago Cubs on Thursday night gave the Cardinals their fourth NL Central title in six years, one the manager wasn’t ready to acknowledge.
“It happened last year and again this year. It just doesn’t seem right to celebrate when your magic number is one,” he said.
Jeff Suppan allowed six hits over eight-plus innings and the Cardinals won a game called with two outs in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded after a 58-minute rain delay.
The Cardinals are the first team to clinch a playoff berth this season. Now they hope to find their way back to the World Series where they were swept last year by the Boston Red Sox.
“You don’t play to win the division, you play to win championship rings,” first baseman Albert Pujols said. “How many division titles does this team have? … We don’t care about that. It doesn’t matter what record we have. Last year we had the best record in the majors and we lost in the World Series.”
Thursday’s victory over the Cubs coupled with Atlanta’s 6-4 win over Philadelphia gave St. Louis (94-54) the division title because Houston could at best match the Cardinals at 94 wins, with both teams assured of playoff berths at that figure. St. Louis has the tiebreaker because it clinched the season series against the Astros.
But just like last season after they had clinched, La Russa wouldn’t officially acknowledge the title until the Cardinals’ magic number over second-place Houston is zero. So, the Cardinals were not doing any celebrating.
“You’re watching the number and go `10-9-8’ and get to one and you’re going to celebrate? Zero is when you celebrate. That’s what we’re doing to do,” La Russa said.
La Russa said the Cards won’t pop the corks until they win another game and officially finish with more victories than the Astros. That might not come until Saturday, if both teams lose Friday, he said.
“You have to show respect for the other guys,” Pujols said. “It’s good to know we have a spot in the playoffs but still you don’t want to take things for granted.”
Running away with the division for a second straight season, the Cards moved into first place on April 16 and never left.
They quickly took care of what they needed to Thursday night.
St. Louis jumped on Mark Prior for three first-inning runs as David Eckstein and Pujols singled, Larry Walker doubled in a run, John Rodriguez had an RBI grounder and Abraham Nunez beat out a run-scoring infield single to short.
“I believe this is what we decided,” Suppan said of not celebrating. “I didn’t make the decision so I wasn’t really in the process. What matters is going out there and winning tomorrow. That’s what our philosophy has been all year.”
Derrek Lee’s 43rd homer leading off the bottom of the ninth ended Suppan’s night and ruined his shutout bid. As rain began to fall, the Cubs loaded the bases against Al Reyes. Catcher Yadier Molina missed Henry Blanco’s foul popup that would have ended the game and then Blanco reached to load the bases when Eckstein slipped and fell fielding his grounder to short just before the delay.
“When you saw that Ecsktein went down that’s when you know the field is too sloppy to play on,” Cubs manager Dusty Baker said.
The Cards scored three runs in the eighth as Larry Walker was walked by Todd Wellemeyer with the bases loaded, Rodriguez added a sacrifice fly and a third run scored on an error.
The Cardinals made changes this season and kept clicking: Mark Mulder joined the rotation; Eckstein and Mark Grudzielanek formed a new double play combo; and Molina took over for reliable Mike Matheny behind the plate.
“We’ve been really concerned the whole second half that a stretch of bad play was right in front of us and I think that’s kept us pushing and we’ve been able to avoid it,” La Russa said. “I don’t want to lose that concern even though we’re starting to get healthy.”
After being swept by the Red Sox a year ago, the Cardinals are aware that winning in the regular season means little once the playoffs begin. A year ago they finished 105-57 and won the NL Central by 13 games.
“There are two challenges for a club, the first is the regular season, a six-month grind. So if you happen to win your division and qualify for October, I think that is the hardest thing to do,” La Russa said.
“But you separate it because it’s not the most important thing, just the hardest. The reason you want to win the division is so you can play in October, get to and win the World Series. That’s a different kind of challenge.”
Prior (11-6) allowed six hits and three runs in five innings. He threw 35 pitches in the long opening inning.
Beaned by a pitch from Cincinnati’s Matt Belisle on Wednesday night, Cubs C Michael Barrett said Thursday that tests showed he was OK. He was still lightheaded, he said, but could return to the lineup Friday. … Grudzielanek was out of the lineup. He had returned Wednesday after missing a week with a sore back, but La Russa said the former Cub would be back Friday. … On a 65-degree night, the wind was blowing in at 16 mph. … The Cardinals are 5-8 against the Cubs this season, the only division team they have a losing record against.