Break Open The Champagne: Cardinals Are NL Central Champs

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Break Open The Champagne: Cardinals Are NL Central Champs
(Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

"For nearly two months, they've taken the field as the dominant team in the National League Central. On Saturday night, the twice made-over Cardinals celebrated at Coors Field as champions once again.

A thrilling 6-3 win over the Rockies secured the Cardinals' fourth division championship in six years, ensuring that the two-time reigning champion Chicago Cubs cannot catch the rival Redbirds. Best of all, the Cardinals did it the way they wanted: on the field. St. Louis is back on top, where the franchise believes it always belongs.

It's the 22nd outright regular-season division or league championship in franchise history, a list that doesn't include the Cardinals' tie for first place in the NL Central in 2001. They have made the postseason eight times in 14 years under manager Tony La Russa. Now they will aim for their third NL pennant in six years, 18th in franchise history and ultimately their 11th world championship.

"That's what I play for," said slugger Albert Pujols, who has now made the playoffs in six of his nine Major League seasons. "My goal every year is to try to help this ballclub and this organization to get to the postseason and give ourselves a chance to be champions."

Pujols is one of several Cardinals who will be returning to the postseason. Starters Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter, as well as catcher Yadier Molina and reliever Josh Kinney were with Pujols, playing for La Russa, on the 2006 World Series champions. Starter John Smoltz is one of the most accomplished postseason performers in baseball history, while players like Ryan Franklin, Matt Holliday and Joel Pineiro have limited October résumés.

"It's definitely exciting," said Franklin. "It's been a long time for me. It's been [eight] years, since 2001, that I got to celebrate. It means a lot. It's definitely not where we want to be yet, but it's a start."

And then there are players like Ryan Ludwick, Brendan Ryan and Skip Schumaker, key Cardinals who have never played in the postseason.

"It's cool because you know all the hard work we put into Spring Training and the offseason to get where we wanted to is paying off," Ludwick said. "I think that's the biggest thing."

It's the first championship the franchise has won since a change at the top of its baseball operations department two years ago. Following the 2007 season, general manager Walt Jocketty was dismissed, replaced by John Mozeliak. Coinciding with the change in personnel was a change in the way the organization did business, with a goal of being more self-sufficient and less reliant on external talent.

The first season of the new direction resulted in an 86-win campaign, not bad by most standards but frustrating to many fans as well as to some on the field staff. But the 2009 season, and team, were different. Mozeliak and the rest of the front office saw a team with very real championship potential, and so they moved aggressively to bolster the roster during the season. From late June all the way into mid-August, the Cardinals made a series of acquisitions, all of which proved to strengthen the club.

First, Mark DeRosa came over from Cleveland, solidifying a third-base position that had been a major problem due to Troy Glaus' slower-than-expected recovery from shoulder surgery. Then, in a two-day span, the Cardinals traded Chris Duncan for Julio Lugo and acquired Holliday for three players. And in August, facing a need for right-handed pitching, Mozeliak made one more shrewd pickup, signing Smoltz after he was released by Boston.

Every one of the moves paid dividends. DeRosa and Holliday deepened the everyday lineup. Lugo provided a platoon mate for Schumaker at second base and a viable bat at short when Ryan needs a rest. And Smoltz has been better than anyone but perhaps Smoltz himself expected, quite possibly pitching his way into a spot in the team's postseason rotation.

"It's fantastic," said Smoltz, perhaps the greatest postseason starting pitcher in the game's history. "This will be my 15th time, and I can't get enough of it. You want to be physically and mentally at the point, and draw from your experience and get there. And once you get there, make it happen. All that body of work that gets you there is gone, and you focus on the task at hand."

The restructured team went from one of three or four contenders for a division title to the clear favorite. They took off on a dominant run, going 38-18 since July 23 and pulling out to a division lead that was as large as 11 1/2 games at one point.

Yet those changes weren't the only ones. The Cardinals team that came to Spring Training featured quite a few moving parts. Rookie Colby Rasmus forced his way onto the roster, while Schumaker moved from the outfield to second base -- and pulled it off with scarcely a hitch. Khalil Greene was brought in over the winter to be the shortstop, but when an anxiety disorder limited him, Ryan stepped in and played brilliantly.

Carpenter came back from nearly two full seasons missed to pitch as well as anyone in the National League. Franklin emerged as the closer, but only after an offseason search for a ninth-inning man proved fruitless and Jason Motte struggled in his early audition.

It's not that no one could have foreseen the Cardinals in the postseason. But it may be fair to say that no one could have foreseen this particular Cardinals team playing in October. Now the goal is to play deep into October.

"You can be happy and excited about clinching and being in the playoffs, but our main goal is to try to get to the World Series," Pujols said. "So that's just one step that we take. It's almost like a baby step. You have to crawl before the baby starts walking. We're crawling right now. We've gotten to the postseason ... but if you don't get to the World Series, it's like the baby, you still need to crawl and take your first step and start walking. Hopefully we can be there and have a good chance to win it all.""

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