PITTSBURGH -- With an 11-1 victory over the Pirates in the second game of Wednesday's doubleheader, the Cardinals were crowned kings of what has been baseball's toughest division this season. And now that the National League Central title is theirs, they can turn their attention from holding off the Cubs and Pirates to preparing to host one of those two division foes in Game 1 of the NL Division Series.
The Cardinals, 100-game winners for the ninth time in franchise history, have already wrapped up home-field advantage through the NL Championship Series by virtue of being guaranteed to finish with more wins than any other NL team. It marks the second time in three seasons that the Cardinals can boast of being the NL's best over a 162-game stretch, and the last time, in 2013, the Cardinals parlayed home-field advantage into a trip to the World Series.
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This is a club now looking to advance to the World Series for the third time in five seasons. They have been NLCS participants in each of the last four.
"It's really a compliment to all of us that three 90-plus win teams [from the division] are competing [for that NLCS berth]," general manager John Mozeliak said during Wednesday's champagne celebration. "Our division was tough, and to survive it the way we did comes back to the way this club plays and believes in itself. This completes the season. Now we can focus on the next chapter."
The Cardinals will open the best-of-five NLDS at Busch Stadium on Oct. 9, two days after the Pirates and Cubs (at a location still to be determined) square off with the chance to face the team they couldn't top in the regular season. With four days off between the end of the regular season and the start of the postseason, the Cardinals will have the luxury of being able to structure their postseason rotation as they wish.
John Lackey and Jaime Garcia seem likely to draw the two starts at home. Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha will round out the four-man playoff rotation. In contrast, the Wild Card winner will have burned its ace -- either Jake Arrieta (Cubs) or Gerrit Cole (Pirates) -- and therefore would be able to call on that pitcher for just one NLDS start. Such is the advantage given to the division winner.
The Pirates and Cubs have both proven to be formidable opponents for the Cardinals this season, so either matchup would present challenges.
Against Chicago, the Cardinals won 11 of 19 regular-season games even though they dropped six of the last nine. The Cardinals had a staff ERA of 3.93 against the Cubs, while the offense hit at a .246 clip. The Cardinals went 7-3 against the Cubs at Busch Stadium and 4-5 on the road.
Wednesday's win gave the Cardinals a 10-9 season-series advantage over the Pirates, even though Pittsburgh outscored the Cardinals, 79-76. The Cardinals won the first four games they played against Pittsburgh before going 6-9 the rest of the way. The Cardinals posted a 3.56 ERA against the Pirates and hit .240 off their pitching.
The Cardinals faced the Pirates in the 2013 NLDS and went the distance in that series before advancing. The Cardinals and Cubs, despite their storied rivalry, have never met in postseason play.
"We'll deal with that later," manager Mike Matheny said of preparing for their NLDS opponent. "These guys are celebrating like they've never done it before. Mid-February, we were talking about making sacrifices, talking about what we had to do and how we had to go about it to be able to take this division. We knew it wasn't going to be easy, and it certainly wasn't."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB, like her Facebook page Jenifer Langosch for Cardinals.com and listen to her podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.