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Fly, fly again! Cubs' W clinches another flag

MLB.com @CarrieMuskat

ST. LOUIS -- It's time for the Cubs to party like it's 2016.

• Shop for Cubs NL Central champs gear

View Full Game Coverage

ST. LOUIS -- It's time for the Cubs to party like it's 2016.

• Shop for Cubs NL Central champs gear

View Full Game Coverage

The Cubs clinched their second straight National League Central Division title on Wednesday, beating the Cardinals, 5-1, to advance to the postseason for a third straight year.

Cubs celebrate with 'W' flag on pitcher's mound

Gif: Cubs clinch NL Central team photo

This is the first time the Cubs have reached the postseason in three consecutive years since 1906-08, when Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown and Ed Reulbach were the team aces and "Tinker to Evers to Chance" was the double-play combination that would one day be immortalized in a poem. Yes, it's been that long.

Video: CHC@STL: Russell slugs a go-ahead three-run home run

"I like to say they're fearless," manager Joe Maddon said of this year's Cubs. "I don't think they take anything for granted. I think we do like the bigger moment."

Video: Cubs relish second straight NL Central title

It seemed fitting that the Cubs clinched the Central in St. Louis against a franchise that has set the standard for National League clubs in winning 11 World Series championships. Maybe it's a changing of the guard.

Video: How They Got There: Cubs Extended Cut

Now, the Cubs begin the challenge of trying to become the first NL team to repeat as World Series champs since the Reds did so in 1975 and '76. The 2008-09 Phillies were the last NL team to get to the World Series in consecutive seasons, and the last team to repeat as World Series champs was the Yankees, who won three years in a row, from 1998-2000.

In 2015, the Cubs were one of three NL Central teams to win at least 97 games and made the postseason as an NL Wild Card entrant. Last year, they cruised and posted the best record in the Majors (103-58), winning the division by 17 1/2 games.

Video: CHC@STL: Rizzo on clinching NL Central, postseason

This season's postseason push was more of a challenge. The Cubs were 5 1/2 games behind the Brewers at the All-Star break and needed a strong second-half surge to repeat as division champs.

"I think it's the first time we're in a real pennant race," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said. "It's different. There's a lot more intensity. There's a lot more focus on September games than we've been used to."

Video: CHC@STL: Russell discusses Cubs clinching NL Central

At the All-Star break, the Cubs seemed to collectively hit the reset button, and they have posted the best record in the NL since that halfway point. They lead the Major Leagues in batting in the second half, thanks to a spark from catcher Willson Contreras, who batted .311 with 10 home runs and 29 RBIs in 23 games from July 14-Aug. 9. He's one of the club's several second-half MVPs.

Video: Must C Conclusion: Cubs outlast Brewers in extras

The Cubs made a crosstown deal, acquiring left-handed starter Jose Quintana on July 13 from the White Sox, and the veteran struck out a season-high 12 batters over seven scoreless innings against the Orioles in his Cubs debut on July 16. On Sunday, he threw a three-hit shutout against the Brewers.

Video: CHC@MIL: Quintana notches 10 K's in three-hit shutout

The Cubs also traded for left-handed reliever Justin Wilson and catcher Alex Avila, who would be a key player when Contreras was sidelined with a hamstring injury. Aches and pains created adversity for the Cubs this season. Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell and Kris Bryant all dealt with injuries. Four starting pitchers -- Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, John Lackey, and Kyle Hendricks -- were also sidelined at some point.

Russell's injury, though, provided an opening for another second-half MVP, Javier Baez, who dazzled with his magical glovework and sparked the offense with clutch hits.

Video: Must C Combo: Baez homers, makes fantastic stop

"Without Javy being here when Addy got hurt, it would not look the same right now," Maddon said of the Cubs' position in the standings. "I promise you it would not look the same. The ability to plug up the middle of the field the way Javy has done in the absence of Addison, we would not be in this position right now."

Video: CHC@STL: Zobrist on Cubs clinching NL Central, season

Mike Montgomery saved the rotation and provided a kick-start in the bullpen. When the Cubs needed a substitute starter, the lefty stepped in. If they needed depth in the bullpen, he joined the relievers. After going 1-6 in the first half, Montgomery has gone 6-2 in the second half. Give him an MVP vote, too.

Video: Ron Darling on Cubs' chances to repeat

Kyle Schwarber didn't work as the leadoff man in the first half and eventually was sent to the Minors to get back on track. Schwarber rebounded and now has 29 homers. But the Cubs' secret weapon has been Jon Jay, who took over at leadoff and provided veteran leadership in the dugout and on the field.

"This guy loves this kind of stuff," Maddon said of the outfielder's contributions in September. "Give Jon Jay credit."

Video: ATL@CHC: Jay smacks four hits vs. the Braves

And one can't overlook first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who has posted another 30-30-100 season (32 doubles, 32 homers and 109 RBIs). Maybe someday he'll get more consideration as the NL's MVP. Speaking of the MVP, Bryant entered Wednesday quietly batting .331 since the All-Star break while ranking among the NL leaders in runs scored.

Maddon began the 2017 season in Spring Training with three themes: Be uncomfortable, authenticity, and don't forget the heartbeat. The Cubs didn't forget the messages.

Video: Must C Clutch: Rizzo, Bryant lead Cubs in comeback

"We had a lot of things that were not easy about this year, starting with guys naturally being fatigued, but you also have the fact that every team in our division played well this year," Heyward said. "It's one of those years when you have to do everything right to get it done. We had a lot of growing to do this year."

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.

Chicago Cubs