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Cards become 1st team to clinch postseason spot

CHICAGO -- With sights still set on a grander end goal, the Cardinals nevertheless took a necessary step in that direction on Saturday by using Arizona's 6-0 win over the Giants to become the Majors' first team to reserve a place in the postseason. The Cardinals could have sealed their spot with a victory earlier in the day, but they dropped a 5-4 game to the Cubs.

Before last season's postseason appearance, the Cardinals had never had a run of four consecutive years with a playoff berth. Now, they've extended it to five. For manager Mike Matheny, he stands as the only manager in baseball history to lead his club to the postseason in his first full four seasons.

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Of course, the Cardinals' aspirations are much greater than simply playing in meaningful October games. They have an opportunity to become the first team since the Braves (1995-99) to advance to the National League Championship Series in five straight years, and before that, can secure a third straight NL Central title. It would be their ninth such crown since 2000.

Sitting four games ahead of the Pirates and five in front of the Cubs with 14 games remaining, the Cardinals' magic number for the division title sits at 11. They have another three games remaining against the Pirates this season and one more against the Cubs on Sunday. All are on the road.

As the Cardinals have done when clinching a playoff berth the past two seasons, they intended to pause collectively on Sunday to recognize the accomplishment of getting in. But it didn't include a champagne celebration. That will come when additional items are checked off the to-do list.

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"I think it's real important to acknowledge the fact that you're one of the teams that is fortunate enough to play even one more game at the end. Never, ever slight that," Matheny said. "There are some guys in there who have never been able to celebrate anything, and we have been pushing since February for the chance to play beyond 162. … We want to continue to push for this division, but not slight the accomplishment of being able to be acknowledged to be one of the 10."

While pursuing a division title, the Cardinals are also trying to lock down home-field advantage throughout the NLCS. The Cardinals have a four-game advantage in that race, as the Pirates (88 wins) and Cubs (87) loom closer to the Cardinals (92-56) than either the NL East-leading Mets (84-64) or NL West-leading Dodgers (85-62).

Staking claim to the NL's best record would position the Cardinals to play the winner of the NL Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser, in which both teams will likely pit their top starters with the chance to face St. Louis in the NL Division Series on the line. And unless there is a sudden shakeup in the standings, those two Wild Card teams will emerge from the NL Central.

That leaves the Cardinals looking at a familiar matchup. St. Louis has split its 16 games against Pittsburgh and has been outscored, 70-60, in those games. Against the Cubs, the Cardinals are 10-8, but with a run differential of only plus-four.

But the Cardinals have lost their three September series against the two NL Central rivals. If they were to lose their grip on a division lead they've held outright since April 17, they'd be forced to appear in the win-or-go-home NL Wild Card affair for a second time in four seasons.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB, like her Facebook page Jenifer Langosch for and listen to her podcast.
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