Cubs beat Cards to clinch NL Central
Lilly's career-high 16th win secures second straight title
CHICAGO -- The Cubs can't make up for 100 years without a world championship just by winning the National League Central, but it's a start.
Alfonso Soriano drove in two runs, and Ted Lilly executed a perfect suicide squeeze and notched his career-high 16th win to lead the Cubs to a 5-4 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday that clinched the division for the second consecutive year. It was party time in Wrigleyville.
The sunshine-splashed crowd of 41,597 pushed the season home total to a club-record 3,259,649. And that's just a fraction of the championship-starved Cubs fans Lou Piniella has encountered in his second season in Chicago. He's tried to harness the expectations. Yes, this is the longest drought in professional sports, but Piniella wants the 2008 Cubs to be judged on what they've done this year, not carry the burden of what they haven't done in the last century.
"They should be cautious," Piniella said. "I understand. In the two years that I've been here, I have shared, I have heard the frustrations of all these Cub fans. What the heck can you do? You can't relive the past. You've got to look at the present, and you've got to look toward the future.
"The present is that this is a talented team that's got a chance to do some things in the postseason," he said. "But you can't carry the weight of all the past failures on your back. You can't, because it's too much pressure. I'm trying to alleviate that so these kids can relax and go out and play baseball. That's what they get paid to do, and they're doing a darn good job of it."
The Cubs have overcome injuries -- Soriano, for example, missed more than six weeks -- and dealt with their share of what Piniella likes to call "Cubby occurrences." Ryan Dempster and Kerry Wood successfully traded places, castoffs Jim Edmonds and Reed Johnson made big contributions, and Geovany Soto has looked more like an MVP than a rookie.
It's been a team effort. The Cubs have four players with 20 or more home runs and four with 80 or more RBIs. They have three pitchers with at least 14 wins. And now, they will finish first in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1907-08.
"Let's hope that means something," Wood said of the back-to-back trips to the postseason.
Lilly (16-9), whose previous high for wins was 15, gave up four runs, six hits and two walks over seven innings. Carlos Marmol pitched the eighth, and Wood handled the ninth for his 32nd save.
"I was just trying to keep the adrenaline under control," Wood said. "I got behind, 2-0, and walked the first guy, and you never want to do that. I wanted to stay under control. It's still the ninth inning, it's still a one-run lead and it's still a game we needed to win."
How strange for the final out to be made by Edmonds, a former Cardinal, who caught pinch-hitter Aaron Miles' fly ball. The veteran center fielder presented the game ball to Wood and then led the Cubs players in a toast in the clubhouse.
"It's nice to bring everybody together all at one time and let them know this is a tough situation to play all the way through a whole year and get into the postseason," Edmonds said. "I wanted to get everybody together and let them understand what a special moment this is and tell them to stay focused and try to win a World Series."
Edmonds confessed he wanted to keep the game ball. This is Wood's fourth trip to the postseason.
"He's been here a long time, and he deserves it," Edmonds said.
Edmonds got the offense started in the second, leading off with a double, and the Cubs eventually loaded the bases. With two outs, Soriano hit a single against Joel Pineiro (6-7) that left fielder Brian Barton overran for an error, allowing all three runs to score. Soriano was credited with two RBIs.
Soto reached on an error by third baseman Troy Glaus in the fourth and scored on Mark DeRosa's double off the left-field wall to make it 4-0. DeRosa advanced on a groundout and scored on a perfect suicide squeeze by Lilly.
The Cardinals threatened to spoil the party with a four-run sixth, highlighted by Glaus' three-run homer, his 25th.
Lilly got some help. In the fourth, Albert Pujols smashed a ball to third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who dove to knock it down and got to his feet in time to throw to first baseman Derrek Lee, who made an acrobatic move to tag Pujols' leg.
"They played the best all year, so they're the winners," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said.
After the final out, the team mobbed Wood on the mound and then waved to the crowd, which continued the home tradition of singing Steve Goodman's "Go, Cubs, Go." After some champagne was sprayed in the clubhouse and black T-shirts declaring them the division champs were passed out, the players then did a victory lap around Wrigley.
But this celebration wasn't as crazy as last year, when the team clinched the division in Cincinnati.
"We've grown, and we understand that this is just one step," Ryan Theriot said. "Last year [in the postseason] was embarrassing for us. We want to make a much better showing."
Last year, the Cubs were swept in the NL Division Series by the Arizona Diamondbacks. That has smarted more than the champagne that players had in their eyes.
"You know what I like about this year's team? We played ahead all year," Piniella said. "It's not easy. The second thing is our September schedule was a playoff schedule. You're not going to find a rougher schedule than what we've been through in September.
"They played their hearts out this summer," he said. "Last year, they came from behind. It's big to learn to play ahead. Everybody's throwing their best pitching at you. Everybody wants to beat you. It's not the easiest thing in the world to do."
The Cubs now have won 93 games for the first time since the 1989 team went 93-69. They're not finished.
"One of our goals in Spring Training was to win the division," Lee said. "This is a start. We got ourselves in a good position, and I like our team and I like our chances."
Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.