'This is what we play for': Cards clinch NL Central title

September 28th, 2022

MILWAUKEE -- The National League Central title clinched, plastic covering the dressing stalls and champagne and beer bottles already in the hands of the victors, the Cardinals couldn’t truly begin their celebration until Albert Pujols gave his blessing late Tuesday night.

Pujols, he of the 700 home runs, two World Series championships, three MVPs and 22 seasons in the Major Leagues, had been summoned to the middle of the clubhouse by rookie manager Oliver Marmol, and he was asked to speak to the team before a single bottle of champagne was uncorked. The 42-year-old slugger talked to the team about returning for one more season for celebrations like this and being honored to play with this Cardinals squad. Then, he bluntly challenged his teammates to keep pushing and clawing for more and to not be satisfied so that they could have more champagne-soaked celebrations in October and potentially even into November.

“Remember this moment -- this is what we want to do deep into October and win the championship to bring to the city of St. Louis,” Pujols said as players, coaches and executives gathered around him and hung on his every word following the Cardinals’ 6-2 victory at American Family Field. “This is what we play for. We make good money, but this is what we play for. So, let’s win a championship this year. God bless!”

Not long after Pujols’ final word, champagne suds sailed through the air, beers were pounded and joyous screams were unleashed. No one was happier than Nolan Arenado, the 10-year MLB veteran and arguably the best third baseman of his time, who was celebrating his first division crown. He always felt as if he had snuck into the playoffs through the back door, getting there in 2017, ’18, and ’21 as a Wild Card. Now, he would be entering as a champion -- a goal he spoke candidly about and then manifested as one of the leaders of a Cardinals team that ran away with the division title with a 17-3 tear from July 30 to Aug. 22.

“The goal here is to win ballgames -- that’s all we talk about and all we think about,” said Arenado, who is likely headed for his 10th Gold Glove. “I’m thankful for everyone here because everyone contributed, from the veterans to the young guys. We’ve gotten to witness a lot of history along the way this season, but I’m thankful to be a part of my first division championship team.”

Though they split the first 14 games they played against one another, the Cardinals always thought they would eventually pull away from the Brewers and beat them out for the division title. After slogging behind the Brewers in the division standings for three months, the Cardinals finally caught their rivals Aug. 4, and they never looked back, surging ahead by as many as 9 1/2 games.

The Cardinals finished what they started in late July on Tuesday. Even though their magic number was three, the Cardinals won the division by virtue of their 10-8 lead in the head-to-head season series against the Brewers.

“We knew we had the guys to do it, and at the end of the day, we were able to pull it off,” Marmol said with a drenched shirt and a towel thrown over his shoulder. “We’ve had a lot of individual accomplishments throughout the clubhouse -- Yadi [Molina] and [Adam Wainwright’s] 325 [starts] and 700 [home runs] with Albert -- but they came into this culture and never made it about themselves. We’re all playing for something bigger than ourselves, and that’s a championship.”

It was the third straight season the Cardinals clinched a playoff berth while facing the Brewers.

“When you’re a Cardinal, you show up to Spring Training and you expect to make the playoffs every year; this is what we do,” said All-Star closer Ryan Helsley, who threw the fastest pitch of the season at 104.2 mph. “When you get drafted by the Cardinals, you expect greatness. Playing around guys like [Molina] and [Wainwright] and this year [Pujols], they created this culture, and I’m blessed to be a part of this.

“This season has been almost like a fairytale. You couldn’t write a better movie than this in Hollywood,” Helsley added. “It’s been fun to be a part of, and we want to keep going.”

The Cardinals showed off the length and balance of their lineup when they battered the Brewers for nine hits -- seven of them going for extra bases. Dylan Carlson, who has struggled all season hitting left-handed against righties, smashed two doubles and scored both times. Paul Goldschmidt, the NL’s leading MVP candidate before a bizarre month-long slump in September, had two hits and 2 RBIs in something of a great sign for the Cardinals. Andrew Knizner snapped a 0-for-22 skid with a two-run home run in the fourth that gave the Redbirds a commanding 4-0 edge.

That was more than enough for starter Miles Mikolas, who retired the first 10 batters he faced and eventually pitched six dominant innings. He allowed just one run on four hits and one walk while striking out nine Brewers -- the third time this season he’s whiffed nine in a game. Also, he defeated Milwaukee for a third time this season.

“We want [Pujols, Molina and Wainwright] to leave baseball with one more ring,” Mikolas said as pitching coach Mike Maddux poured beer over his head. “Ever since I’ve been here, we’ve always been a second-half team. We saw the moves that the front office made at the Trade Deadline to give us the tools that we needed, and we always believed we could do this.”

Mikolas’ strong outing took him to 199 1/3 innings for the season -- a major accomplishment for a pitcher who has been injured much of the 2020 and ’21 seasons. Clinching with seven games remaining should allow the Cardinals to rest veteran starters Wainwright and Mikolas down the stretch. Wainwright, who has struggled with “dead arm” for weeks while surrendering 17 earned runs over his past five games, won’t pitch again until Sunday. That day at Busch Stadium figures to be a lovefest as the Cardinals honor retiring legends Pujols and Molina, and it could be a regular-season home finale for the 41-year-old Wainwright, who has yet to decide if he will play in 2023.

That trio of Cardinals legends is guaranteed of playing at least one more series at Busch Stadium beyond this weekend. As champions of the NL Central, the Cardinals are guaranteed the NL’s No. 3 seed, and they will host the lowest-seeded Wild Card team starting Oct. 7. That could be the Phillies, Padres or Brewers in a best-of-three series. The Cardinals were 4-2 this season against San Diego and 3-4 versus the Phillies. The win gave them a 10-8 edge on the Brewers.

“This is hard; you look around and can see that no one is taking [winning a division crown] for granted because it’s so hard to do,” Goldschmidt said. “We knew that we hadn’t played our best baseball in the first half of the season, and we knew if we could play better and put it all together, we’d have a chance. In other years we fell so far behind, and we couldn’t make up the deficit. But this year, we knew if we could just play our best, we could have a chance to win the division, and that’s what happened.”