Cardinals crush Cubs to claim NL Central title

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St. Louis Cardinals Jack Flaherty delivers a pitch against the Chicago Cubs in the first inning at Busch Stadium (AFP Photo/Dilip Vishwanat)
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Los Angeles (AFP) - Jack Flaherty threw seven solid innings as the St. Louis Cardinals claimed the National League Central title with a dominating 9-0 Major League Baseball victory Sunday over the struggling Chicago Cubs.

Flaherty improved to 11-8 on the season and needed just 69 pitches to record his 21 outs. He struck out six batters and allowed just two hits and one walk.

The Cardinals will face the Atlanta Braves in the best-of-five NL division playoff series that begins Thursday.

The second-place Milwaukee Brewers will face the Washington Nationals in the wild-card game Tuesday, with the winner to meet the Los Angeles Dodgers in another NL division series matchup.

"We underperformed the first half of the season and everybody knew that," said Cards pitcher Adam Wainwright. "I just said be patient, it's going to come because we had good players.

"This year we got all the pieces. We just got to go out and perform."

The third-place Cubs ended a disappointing season with a one-sided loss for manager Joe Maddon, whose was let go by the team earlier Sunday after five seasons at the helm.

Cardinals manager Mike Shildt hoped to save Flaherty for the first game of the playoffs, but elected to start him Sunday with the division title up in the air.

After finishing the second half of the season with an 0.91 earned-run average, Flaherty is expected to start game two against the Braves.

Elsewhere, pitcher Gerrit Cole earned his career-high 20th win to cap a dominant season for the Houston Astros, who beat the Los Angeles Angels 8-5.

Cole, who improved to 20-5 on the season, also added to his major league-leading strikeout total and finished with the top ERA in the American League.

Cole posted his franchise-record 16th straight win as the Astros wound up with the top record in the majors at 107-55 and home-field advantage throughout the post-season.

They begin the playoffs Friday at home against the winner of the wild-card game between Tampa Bay and Oakland while the New York Yankees face Minnesota in the other American League playoff series.