Cards celebrate NL Central clinch with win

Relievers dominate as regulars rest following Pirates' loss

Cards celebrate NL Central clinch with win

PHOENIX -- The champagne sat chilled in the Chase Field visiting clubhouse, simply awaiting the outcome of a game that had lost all significance by the time the first pitch was thrown. Win or lose in their regular-season finale, the title of National League Central champs could not be plucked away from the Cardinals.

As it was, the Cardinals went on to beat the D-backs, 1-0, behind a handful of plug-in players that were a part of manager Mike Matheny's last-minute switcheroo once a Pirates loss eliminated any meaning from the outcome of Game 162. In a season where they did not hold sole possession of the division lead until September, the Cardinals finished two games ahead of Pittsburgh.

"I'm going to try not to get personal about it, but for me personally, this is the most special [of the last four postseason berths] because there was nothing about this season that was easy," Matt Carpenter said amid a postgame celebration. "We had so many guys either get hurt or not live up to their own expectation of what we put out and it just wasn't easy. ... But we never quit. We never gave up on each other. And we never stopped fighting.

"At the end of the day, we ended up winning the NL Central, which is a really good division. It wasn't pretty, but it is something to be very proud of."

It marked the ninth time since 2000 that the Cardinals have finished first in the NL Central and the second straight year in which they had to fend off the Pirates for that division title all the way up to the final weekend of the regular season. The margin of error this season can be pared down to something as simple as the Cardinals winning 11 of their 19 head-to-head games against the Pirates.

With Johnny Cueto helping pitch (and hit) the Reds to a victory over the Pirates, St. Louis was able to pull Adam Wainwright as he was about halfway through his warmup in order to give him extra rest before he starts Friday against the Dodgers in Game 1 of the NL Division Series. He had started his pregame routine just after the Reds had taken a three-run lead, and as he threw in the bullpen, he glanced regularly at the out-of-town scoreboard.

"I actually threw a pitch without throwing at the catcher," Wainwright admitted. "It was the final out when [Aroldis] Chapman struck him out. I was throwing and watching that."

Nick Greenwood, with about 10 minutes warning that he'd be the fill-in starter if the Reds held on, took Wainwright's pregame place in the bullpen and, on his 27th birthday, made his first career start.

"I would say it's the best birthday ever," Greenwood said. "At the end of the day, we won the game, 1-0. I think that's kind of special. It was a bullpen day; hats off to everyone in the bullpen there. I think that's a credit to how deep our staff is there. I think we're going in the right direction going into the playoffs."

He was the first of five pitchers the Cardinals would use to navigate through nine innings. Greenwood covered three scoreless innings, allowing one hit. Justin Masterson, in his first appearance since Sept. 9, retired six of the seven batters he faced. Kevin Siegrist, Marco Gonzales and Carlos Martinez held the shutout, which, as the 23rd of the season, marked the franchise's most since 1968

It was also the first time since '68 -- a season since titled as the Year of the Pitcher -- that more than 25 percent of the Cardinals' wins were shutout ones.

"We've had our hiccups, but I think if you look at our pitching this year, it's been very, very good," Wainwright said. "I think the most special thing is to know that so many people had a key part in this."

Fitting it was, too, that the Cardinals ended this offensively challenged season with minimum run support and a one-run win. Both have come to define this team, which has been anchored by its pitching from start to finish. It was the Cardinals' 32nd (third-most in the Majors) one-run win in a season where they played 55 one-run games, the most in any year since 1998.

Yet it was the team's ability to win so many tight games that explains how it achieved a 90-win season with a run differential of only plus-16. The Cardinals' 619 runs scored this season are the fewest among the 10 teams that qualified for the postseason.

"I think the pitching has really come through and in the tough times kept us in games," principal owner Bill DeWitt Jr. said. "But at the end of the day, we scored enough runs to win 90 games, which is a nice accomplishment."

The Cardinals manufactured their lone run off Josh Collmenter on Sunday after Pete Kozma, one of those late lineup additions, opened the sixth with a double. He moved to third on a groundout and home on another, giving Kolten Wong an RBI in his second start as a leadoff hitter.

St. Louis, with 90 victories for the eighth time in the last 15 years, became just the third NL team to reach that benchmark this year. The other two were also division champs, Washington and Los Angeles. It took a 19-9 finish to the regular season for the Cardinals to leapfrog the Brewers and stave off the Pirates.

"We know that Pittsburgh had a good run, but we had a better run," Yadier Molina said. "We played better baseball than them, so right now we enjoy and we'll see what happens."

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.