Playoffs-bound Cards still focused on NL Central title

Playoffs-bound Cards still focused on NL Central title

Playoffs-bound Cards still focused on NL Central title

MILWAUKEE -- There was no plastic wrap covering the lockers, no carts of champagne rolled into the visitors' clubhouse at Miller Park on Sunday. All that, the Cardinals believe, is still to come.

The Cardinals officially clinched their spot in the postseason about four hours before taking the field in Milwaukee for their final regular-season road game. Washington's afternoon loss to the Marlins ensured the Cardinals of no worse than the second Wild Card spot.

But the Cardinals are eyeing a division title, which is why the acknowledgement of Sunday's achievement was subdued. Manager Mike Matheny addressed the team after its 6-4 loss to the Brewers and emphasized that the accomplishment of moving to the postseason should not be undersold.

Yes, the team has much loftier goals. But he also wanted his players to know how many others have ended their careers without having the opportunity to play in a single postseason game. That's why even this modest benchmark, Matheny said, should not go unnoticed.

"We talked about goals early on and reaching the postseason is a goal that we've had," Matheny said. "That's why we don't take it lightly. But also on that sheet is to be the best team we can possibly be, which means setting our sights on the Central division."

Postseason hats were distributed to players. There were a few handshakes, too. Mostly, though, there were verbalized challenges of wanting to do more.

"It's different back when there was one Wild Card and you were guaranteed five games," outfielder Matt Holliday said. "Now, with two Wild Cards, your season could be over in one game. It makes for an awkward situation for us as far as how to [celebrate this]. … Acknowledge that it's something to be proud of, but at the same time, we have a lot ahead of us."

With the loss on Sunday night, the Cardinals hold a two-game lead over the Pirates and Reds, who play each other three more times during the season's final week. It's a cushion that comes with a magic number of five.

With that pursuit still a priority, the Cardinals have no plans to spend this week coasting.

"We're going to push right up to the end. I'm not so sure that's a bad thing," Matheny said. "You look at teams that head into postseason play that look sharp, a lot of times it's those clubs that were fighting right until the last minute. We just plan on going out and pushing and continue doing it how we've been doing."

The Cardinals saw the benefit of having to play hard until the final days of the regular season in both 2011 and '12. They didn't clinch a Wild Card berth until the final day of the '11 season and went on to win the World Series. Last year, the Cardinals punched their trip to the postseason after game No. 151. They advanced to the National League Championship Series.

Still up for grabs, too, this week is home-field advantage through the NLCS. The Cardinals enter the final week trailing the Braves by 1 ½ games in their quest to finish with the league's best record. The club that takes that top spot will face the winner of the Wild Card play-in game and gets home-field advantage until the World Series.

"I think that will be a great accomplishment," Matheny said of finishing with the NL's best record. "I guess you could say the team that does that there's an advantage one way or another. I don't necessarily buy into that. The teams that try to start putting it together that, 'We want to do this because that could happen…," I think you just play the game and see where it plays out and where you're positioned. Obviously, the first thing we need to do is take this division. That's our first mindset. Then attain the other things that are out there."

If the standings were to finish as they are now, the Cardinals (91-65) would be the NL's second seed and would host the Dodgers (90-66) in the Division Series.

The Cardinals have now advanced to the postseason in each of the last three years and 10 times since 2000. Matheny has led them to the playoffs in each of his first two seasons at the helm. Only one other manager in Cardinals history (Gabby Street in 1930 and '31) had previously accomplished that feat. It's now been done just 11 times in Major League history.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.