MILWAUKEE -- The third time was decidedly the charm for the Cardinals.
Technically, St. Louis clinched the National League Central division title on Saturday night. Officially, the Cards wrapped it up with a Cubs loss on Monday afternoon. Emotionally, they salted it away Monday night with a 7-4 win over the Brewers at Miller Park.
Only after the last of the three, the win, was the champagne uncorked. Only then did the best team in the National League break out the division champion T-shirts and hats. But when they finally did, they did it right.
"We've got a long way to go," said catcher Mike Matheny. "But this is something that we just can't brush off as not a big deal. It's a big deal. There are guys who have played their whole careers, outstanding careers, and haven't seen this. ... It's never something you get used to. It's never something you take for granted. It's a wonderful experience."
Matt Morris got the ball in the crowning game, and though he didn't get the win, he reveled in being a part of it. And even with the title in hand, a loss to the Brew Crew would have been unacceptable to the right-hander.
"We didn't consider it official, I don't think, until we won tonight," Morris said. "It never gets old. I'd do this every year. But you never know when the opportunity is gonna come again. So you take it in stride and have fun with it, and you focus on your next goal."
Due to a tiebreaker rule, it was assured on Saturday night that no matter what, St. Louis would be crowned division champs at year's end. But the Cards refused to accept a tiebreak, and waited to celebrate until it was sure that their record would be better than the Cubs'.
That happened about half an hour before the Cards took the field against the Brewers. Chicago's 5-2 loss to the Marlins in Game 2 of a doubleheader on Monday locked up St. Louis' third outright National League Central Division title in five years. It was simply a formality in many ways, but the Cards' celebration was very real.
"This is the way it's supposed to be done," said Matheny. "It couldn't have happened better."
There's been little drama in the division recently, but a championship is a special thing.
"I really believe it gets better every time," said manager Tony La Russa. "The guys that have been together now anywhere from two, three, four years, I think you look forward to it because you know what it's gonna feel like, and you just enjoy it more and more."
Albert Pujols had the first RBI with a sacrifice fly, and he drove in the game-winner with a single. And yes, every clinching game is always referred to as "appropriate," but nonetheless nobody deserved to play a big role more than Pujols did.
Like his teammates, however, Pujols already has one eye on October. He's hoping to have three more of these parties.
Albert Pujols / 1B
Weight: 225 lbs
Bats: R / Throws: R
"We just need to make sure we're ready to go, man," said Pujols. "Because whatever you do in the season, it doesn't matter if you lose in the first round or second round. I've been there. The last four years, I've been in the first round and been in the second round. Hopefully this year we'll get all the way to the World Series. That's where you want to be."
St. Louis has already won 98 games, the franchise's highest total since 1985. In a strange coincidence, it's the third straight time that the Cards have locked up the division on Sept. 20.
According to Project Retrosheet (www.retrosheet.org), the last time St. Louis clinched earlier on the calendar was 1968, when the eventual NL champions wrapped things up on Sept. 17. The last Cards team to clinch with so many games remaining (14 before Monday night) was the 1943 club, which salted away the pennant with 16 games left on the schedule.
There had been a bit of confusion over the final status of the clinch for a couple of days. Published reports on Sunday had the Cards already clinching -- and, technically, it was true.
Following Chicago's loss on Saturday, the Cubs had 65 losses and the Cards were at 97 wins. If the two teams had finished with identical 97-65 records (the best and worst each could do, respectively), it would have assured both teams of a postseason berth. Thus there would have been no one-game playoff. By virtue of an 11-8 head-to-head record, St. Louis would have taken the tiebreaker and been declared division champs.
But officially, the club wasn't buying it. In the midst of a historic season, the Redbirds wanted to clinch on the field. They wanted to pop champagne and celebrate an improbable and amazing year of dominance.
"That's a rule for the thing when it's tied at the end of the season," La Russa said on Sunday afternoon, referring to the tiebreaker. "We've got another 14 games to go."
Besides, the Cardinals call themselves co-champions of the NL Central for the 2001 campaign, a season that ended in just such a tiebreak fashion. Houston and St. Louis finished tied for the NL's best record in '01, at 93-69. The Astros won more head-to-head games, and therefore were named the division champs, while the Cardinals played in the postseason as the Wild Card.
Logically, to claim an outright title via tiebreaker in one season and a co-championship despite a tiebreaker in another season would be inconsistent. So the Redbirds were willing to wait a couple of days for a coronation.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
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