ATLANTA -- After a weekend of resting their regulars and scripting controlled appearances for others, the Cardinals closed the 162-game portion of the season Sunday and turned their attention to accomplishing a new set of goals.
The Cardinals were officially crowned as kings of what has been baseball's toughest division this season with an 11-1 win over the Pirates on Wednesday. A 2-0 loss to the Braves on Sunday completed an Atlanta sweep, but this was a series much more about preparation than it was immediate results. After spending six months holding off the Cubs and Pirates in the National League Central, the Cards will now face one of the two division foes in Game 1 of the NL Division Series at Busch Stadium on Friday on TBS.
The Cardinals, 100-game winners for ninth time in franchise history, wrapped up home-field advantage through the NL Championship Series by finishing with baseball's best record. It marks the second time in three seasons that St. Louis can boast of being the NL's best over a 162-game stretch, and the last time, in 2013, the Cards parlayed home-field advantage into a trip to the World Series.
That year, as they do in this one, the Cardinals had four off days preceding the start of their NLDS. It didn't slow them down then, and the Cards hope it will allow them to get healthy now. Yadier Molina will visit with a hand specialist Monday to determine whether there has been enough healing in his left thumb to resume baseball activities. Others who have recently rehabbed from injuries get additional time to rest.
"These four days are going to feel like an eternity," said Stephen Piscotty, who returned to the field Sunday. "You want to get out there and get after it. But it's important. We're going to get rested up and have a couple workouts, get locked in and ready to go."
The Cards will also have an opportunity to structure their playoff rotation however they wish, though it looks like John Lackey and Jaime Garcia will start, in some order, the first two games. That would line Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha up to pitch on the road. Manager Mike Matheny said on Sunday that he was not ready to officially announce his rotation plans.
The Pirates and Cubs, who will square off in Pittsburgh on Wednesday for the chance to face the team they couldn't top in the regular season, won't have that luxury. 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 Cubs and Pirates have both proven to be formidable opponents, so either matchup would present its challenges. The Cubs won 97 games and the Pirates 98 to assure the NL Central of boasting the Majors' three best records.
"It's really a compliment to all of us that three 90-plus win teams [from the division] are competing [for that NLCS berth]," St. Louis general manager John Mozeliak said. "Our division was tough, and to survive it the way we did comes back to the ways this club plays and believes in itself. This completes the season. Now we can focus on the next chapter."
Against Chicago, the Cardinals won 11 of 19 games even though they dropped six of the last nine. The Cardinals had a staff ERA of 3.93 vs. 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 Cards, 79-76. St. Louis won the first four games against Pittsburgh before going 6-9. The Cardinals posted a 3.56 ERA vs. 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 Cards and Cubs, despite their storied rivalry, have never met in postseason play.
"It was a great division," Matheny said. "We saw that early on that there were going to be good teams."