|St. Louis «||3||0||0||0||0||0||0||3||0||6||9||1|
CHICAGO -- 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 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.
|Jeff Suppan scatters six hits over eight innings while fanning seven. (AP)|
|Players of the Game|
Cardinals 2011 World Series Champions Ticket Frame Jr. Shop Now!
|St. Louis Cardinals|
|David Eckstein, SS||4||2||1||0||1||0||1||.287|
|Jim Edmonds, CF||3||1||0||0||2||2||2||.258|
|Albert Pujols, 1B||5||2||2||0||0||0||2||.336|
|Larry Walker, RF||3||1||2||2||1||0||0||.274|
|John Rodriguez, LF||2||0||0||2||1||0||2||.299|
|Skip Schumaker, LF||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||.231|
|Abraham Nunez, 3B||4||0||1||1||0||2||5||.295|
|Yadier Molina, C||4||0||2||0||0||1||1||.259|
|Hector Luna, 2B||4||0||0||0||0||1||2||.272|
|Jeff Suppan, P||4||0||1||0||0||0||0||.200|
|Al Reyes, P||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||.000|
|2B - Larry Walker (18, Prior)|
|SF - John Rodriguez (2)|
|RBI - Larry Walker 2 (46), John Rodriguez 2 (22), Abraham Nunez (42)|
|2-OUT RBI - Abraham Nunez (15)|
|CS - Yadier Molina (3, 2nd base by Prior/Blanco)|
|Team LOB - 6|
|DP - Eckstein-Luna-Pujols|
|E - Yadier Molina (7, dropped foul pop)|
|St. Louis Cardinals|
|Jeff Suppan (W,15-10)||8||6||1||1||1||7||1||3.57|
|WP - Jeff Suppan (6)|
|Pitches-Strikes - Jeff Suppan 107-67, Al Reyes 25-15|
|Ground Balls-Fly Balls - Jeff Suppan 11-5|
|Batters Faced - Jeff Suppan 30, Al Reyes 5|
|Jerry Jr. Hairston, CF||4||0||1||0||0||1||0||.262|
|Todd Walker, 2B||4||0||1||0||0||2||2||.303|
|Derrek Lee, 1B||4||1||2||1||0||0||1||.340|
|Nomar Garciaparra, 3B||3||0||0||0||1||1||0||.276|
|Jeromy Burnitz, RF||4||0||1||0||0||0||2||.261|
|Matt Murton, LF||3||0||0||0||0||1||0||.322|
|Todd Wellemeyer, P||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||.250|
|a- Ben Grieve, PH||1||0||0||0||0||1||1||.313|
|Neifi Perez, SS||3||0||2||0||1||0||0||.277|
|Henry Blanco, C||4||0||1||0||0||1||2||.257|
|Mark Prior, P||1||0||0||0||0||0||0||.178|
|b- Ryan Theriot, PH||1||0||0||0||0||1||0||.333|
|Rich Hill, P||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||.333|
|Jose Macias, LF||1||0||0||0||0||0||1||.270|
|a-struck out for Wellemeyer in the 9th|
|b-struck out for Prior in the 5th|
|HR - Derrek Lee (43, Suppan)|
|RBI - Derrek Lee (101)|
|Team LOB - 8|
|DP - Blanco-Walker, Perez-Walker-Lee|
|E - Todd Walker (5, wild throw)|
|Mark Prior (L,11-6)||5||6||3||3||1||4||0||3.70|
|Pitches-Strikes - Mark Prior 93-62, Rich Hill 38-21, Todd Wellemeyer 38-22|
|Ground Balls-Fly Balls - Mark Prior 7-3, Rich Hill 3-2, Todd Wellemeyer 1-3|
|Batters Faced - Mark Prior 21, Rich Hill 8, Todd Wellemeyer 10|
|Attendance - 37849|
|Game Time - 2:47|
|Temperature - 68|
|Umpires - Home - Jim Wolf, First Base - Sam Holbrook, Second Base - Larry Vanover, Third Base - Randy Marsh|