Defending champs revel in 3rd straight berth

Trailing by 5 1/2 at All-Star break, Cubs post NL's best 2nd-half record

Defending champs revel in 3rd straight berth

ST. LOUIS -- Last year, the Cubs ended the longest championship drought in professional sports by winning their first World Series since 1908. On Wednesday, they completed the first stage of their mission to repeat as champions, clinching their second straight National League Central title with a 5-1 victory over the Cardinals. The Cubs now are in the playoffs for the third straight year, something the franchise has not done since 1906-08.

Dress for October: Get NL Central champs gear

"We did something last year that hasn't been done in 100-plus years, too," Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said. "It feels good to have sustained success. We want to be identified as one of those teams that you expect to see on the TV in October when you sit down in your easy chair to watch baseball. I think we're well on our way."

Cubs net Central title, 3rd straight October trip

The key this season may be that the Cubs didn't panic when they were 5 1/2 games back at the All-Star break.

"It wasn't depressing for me, knowing that you have on paper the best guys, and knowing you have guys with strong character," Cubs owner Tom Ricketts said. "Once again, credit to the guys. You know how hard it is to repeat. Most World Series teams don't get back to win their division, and our guys did a great job. They played through a lot of aggravating injuries and distractions, and they came back to win the division."

This year was tougher than the previous two for manager Joe Maddon, and he relied on his experience from two World Series trips in 2002 and in '08 with the Angels and Rays, respectively.

"Everything about this year was different," Maddon said. "I had my mind made up from the beginning to be aware of what happened in '03 and '09 and to not be overreactive. If things weren't going that well, don't overreact to it.

"There was a reason why we got off to a slow start and didn't play as well as we could," he added. "There was a lot of mental fatigue from the previous two years and I saw it."

Russell on clinching NL Central

All that talk about the importance of rest? Those days off worked.

"You try to learn," Maddon said. "I thought, 'OK, if we can come out of this thing and run with it, great.' As the season was in progress, my tack was to not push too hard too soon because there's no gas stations along the way. Once you're out of fuel, you're out of fuel.

"I was looking at that midway point to get back on track and that's what happened," he said. "We've been 20 or so games over .500 since then."

The Cubs have posted the best record in the NL since the break at 46-24 and are the first World Series champions to win their division the next season since the 2009 Phillies.

But it seemed as if every Cubs player hit the reset button at the All-Star break.

"Our guys are good," Maddon said. "Some of it was health issues. Different guys had been banged up a little. I think mentally, it's hard to do. It's a 162-game schedule and people not involved in the industry, it's hard to comprehend. Baseball is usually viewed as easy to do because you stand around a lot, which is such a bad read on what we do. It's about failure on a daily basis, it's about 0-fers, it's about giving up seven runs in three innings, there's errors. You have to fight through those things mentally, and I think our guys did a wonderful job."

Ricketts noticed.

"The one thing that I think we all can take away from Joe is when we were five [games] out on July 1 or July 3, he didn't say, 'Oh my God, we're five out on July 3,'" Ricketts said. "He said, 'We have a good team, we're just going to keep playing and it's a long season.' One of the things that will always be a hallmark of Joe Maddon when he's in the Hall of Fame, people will talk about a guy who managed his team for the whole season and not just for June."

Zobrist on clinching NL Central

John Lackey, who was the winning pitcher Wednesday, has played in three World Series, including that '02 Angels team with Maddon. What makes the 2017 Cubs different?

"There's a lot of young guys who are really good at baseball," Lackey said.

What about the older guys?

Playoff vet Lackey delivers in Central clincher

"They're not too bad, either," the 38-year-old right-hander said.

Must C: Russell's go-ahead homer

"We trust these guys," said Addison Russell, who hit a go-ahead three-run homer Wednesday. "We pick each other up. Whenever the lights come on and we're between those lines, we play Cubby baseball. We're ready to play and we back up our players."

Carrie Muskat has covered the Cubs since 1987, and for MLB.com since 2001. She writes a blog, Muskat Ramblings, and you can follow her on Twitter @CarrieMuskat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.