ST. LOUIS -- With the Champagne on ice and a sellout crowd revved up for a celebration Friday night, the last thing the St. Louis Cardinals wanted to do was put things on hold.
"We didn't want this thing to drag out," center fielder Jon Jay said.
Wasting no time jumping on the Chicago Cubs, St. Louis scored three in the bottom of the first, expanded the lead to 6-0 before the fourth inning was done and cruised to a 7-0 win that clinched the National League Central title.
A sellout crowd of 44,030 at Busch Stadium stood throughout the ninth, roaring when Trevor Rosenthal retired Darwin Barney on a grounder to second for the last out. Players donned T-shirts reading "We Own The Central" on the front before convening in the clubhouse to spray the bubbly and the beer.
"It's special to win the division," said third baseman David Freese, who contributed a solo homer to the clincher. "It was a six-month grind. We held off two great teams."
The Cardinals (95-65) eliminated Cincinnati Wednesday and knocked out Pittsburgh, a 4-1 winner earlier Friday night over the Reds, with their 17th win of September. They also sealed homefield advantage for the first round of the NL Division Series and remain tied with Atlanta for homefield advantage throughout the NL playoffs.
In its clinching victory, St. Louis displayed the attributes that carried it across the finish line -- good starting pitching and clutch hitting.
Lance Lynn (15-10) worked the first six innings, allowing just four hits and fanning nine, including eight in the first three innings. He whiffed six straight at one point, consistently throwing his 94 mile per hour fastball past Chicago hitters.
"Fastball command was the key for me," Lynn said. "Any time I can strike out six hitters in a row, it's pretty cool."
Offensively, the Cardinals got three two-out runs off Travis Wood (9-12) in the first and never looked back. Yadier Molina laced a two-run double to the left-field corner, and Jay followed with an RBI single to center.
It was the only inning for Wood, who agreed with manager Dale Sveum prior to the game that he would cap his season inning total at 200, a career high for the left-hander.
After Freese led off the third with his ninth homer, St. Louis made it 6-0 in the fourth. Matt Holliday took ball four with runners going from first and second, and catcher Dioner Navarro overthrew third base for an error that let Matt Carpenter score. Molina's fielder's choice grounder plated Carlos Beltran for a 6-0 advantage.
Holliday capped the scoring with his 250th career homer, a solo shot off Blake Parker in the sixth.
From there, it was just a matter of time before the Cubs (66-94) had to watch an opponent celebrate a playoff clincher for the third time in six days. Atlanta wrapped up its NL East title Sunday and Pittsburgh ended its 21-year postseason drought the next night.
"You never want to see a team beat you to clinch a playoff spot," Chicago third baseman Donnie Murphy said. "Maybe in a year or two, we can do the clinching."
Across the way, Cardinal players unloosed a celebration seven months in the making.
"Any team in the postseason has a chance to win," Freese said. "We've got a good group of guys. When you come up in an environment like this, you learn to play the game the right way."
NOTES: St. Louis 1B Allen Craig, who leads the team in RBIs with 97, won't play in the NL Division Series, according to general manager John Mozeliak. Craig has been diagnosed with a Lisfranc sprain in his left foot, an injury suffered Sept. 4 in Cincinnati. The team still hopes Craig might be available for the NLCS and World Series. ... Chicago placed C Welington Castillo on the 15-day disabled list, retroactive to Sept. 20, with a partially torn meniscus in his right knee. Castillo finished the season hitting .274 with eight homers and 32 RBIs in 113 games ... The Cardinals are flip-flopping their starting pitchers for the last two games of this series, moving RHP Adam Wainwright to Saturday and RHP Joe Kelly to Sunday. The switch also keeps Wainwright on normal rest for a projected Game 1 start in the NLDS on Thursday. ... Because of the threat of inclement weather on Saturday night, St. Louis has moved the starting time up to 3:15 p.m. from 6:15.