ST. LOUIS — Neither Lance Lynn nor the Cardinals took the most direct route or even the planned route to the goal they identified as far back as spring training, but they arrived there Friday just as they expected — every bit the pitcher and the division champions they insisted they would be.
The Cardinals followed Lynn through one of his strongest outings of the season for a 7-0 victory Friday night against the rival Cubs and a win that clinched the National League Central division title. At 95-65, the Cardinals secured their first division championships since 2009 and home-field advantage in one of next week’s NL division series.
For the first time since 2002 they celebrated a division title on their home field, though the newness of the champagne-popping and beer-pouring was obvious with so, so many rookies lined up on one wall in the clubhouse watching the vets do the dousing.
Injuries and inconsistent performances forced the Cardinals to turn to rookies in the rotation, a rookie hitting cleanup, and, most recently, a rookie handling the closer’s job. Asked how this team compares to the one he thought they had in spring training, catcher Yadier Molina said, “Oh, it’s different, really different.”
Only the results are the same.
“We’re here, we’re still here because we care and because we don’t take anything for granted,” said Molina, wearing a black T-shirt that said “We Own the Central” and a division title cap soggy with champagne. “You watch. You watch. We’re still going to have to surprise people. … We can do it with anybody. If somebody gets hurt, we miss them but at the same time we can take care of business. We all know winning.”
Molina’s two-run double in the first inning gave him a career high 77 RBIs this season and staked the Cardinals to an early lead. David Freese and Matt Holliday followed with solo home runs that backed Lynn. The righty punctuated his late-season renaissance with his 15th win, becoming the third Cardinals pitcher with that many. Lynn held the Cubs scoreless through six innings and struck out nine. He became the third Cardinals pitcher since 1945 with eight strikeouts by the end of the third inning, and at one point he struck out six in a row.
In his past four starts, Lynn (15-10) has been reunited with his fastball and pitched 24 2/3 innings overall, posting a 1.09 ERA with 30 strikeouts and 19 hits allowed.
His September surge comes just weeks after the Cardinals weren’t sure they could keep him in the rotation. His season was at a tipping point and coaches, candidly, acknowledged they didn’t know which way he would tilt. That he finished the season with a career-high 201 2/3 innings and 198 strikeouts says he did enough to keep his spot in the rotation when he was on the brink of losing it.
“When he’s on point and knows the urgency of the situation, you see the best out of Lance,” pitching coach Derek Lilliquist said late Friday. “I think it’s his desire to be his best in the big situations. Four or five starts ago, we were wondering what we were going to do with him. It came down to you have to prove it to us. He had to show us he wanted it.”
Said Lynn: “That’s all I was worried about — getting myself right for the playoffs.”
Lynn’s resurgence coincides with the Cardinals’ sprint to the finish. The Cardinals have won four straight games and nine of their past 12. In 28 days, they’ve turned a one-game deficit in the division into a title from the division that will produce three 90-win playoff teams. The elements of their run were on display Friday, from Lynn’s fourth consecutive quality start to lineup depth and two-out attacks.
The Cubs announced before the game that lefty starter Travis Wood would pitch one inning, get to 200 for the season, and then call it a year.
The Cardinals made him work for it.
Wood (9-12) retired the first two batters of his prescribed inning, and then the best two-out offense in the majors riddled him. Singles by Holliday and Matt Adams preceded a double by Molina. He scored for a swift 3-0 lead and the Cardinals sent nine batters to the plate against Wood, who needed 37 pitches to finish his solo inning. The bullpen had to handle the other eight. Freese’s ninth homer led off the third inning, and Holliday’s 21st of the season — the 250th homer of his career — came with one out in the sixth for a seven-run lead. Somewhere in the ballpark title shirts were being readied, champagne was chilling.
“Relentless,” manager Mike Matheny said. “That’s the word I keep coming back to.”
The Cardinals scraped into the postseason last year as the NL’s second wild card and ended one win shy of a second consecutive NL pennant. The returning players talked repeatedly this season about avoiding the wild-card playoff and its randomness — the one game to determine who advances, where even an infield fly rule can foil a strong season. Ace Adam Wainwright, an equal-opportunity douser with champagne, said the goal has to be “to play good ball for a series of days and not show up and put your whole season on the line for one game. Avoid that.”
The Cardinals did so with their ninth NL Central title. Of the 14 division titles awarded since 2000, the Cardinals have seven of them. Only Jose Oquendo has been in uniform for all seven. Coaches change. Players change. Rookies arrive. Vets leave. Results remain.
Two officials who have been with the Cardinals for all seven of the division titles since 2000 called the clubhouse celebration “subdued.” There were ambushes, and Wainwright dumped scoops of ice down several unsuspecting parties’ backs. At one point, a couple of players poured beer over Matheny’s head and the manager said, “So close to getting out of this deal unscathed. … When do they start using warm beer?”
He said finishing with the best record in the NL was not on his “goal sheet” but winning every game possible was, so he’ll be tempted to push for the remaining two.
There are goals still out there.
“This is a goal we set,” Matheny said. “We talked about ‘championships.’ You can take that in a lot of ways, and I hope they continue to take that in a lot of different ways.”