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Cardinals secure NL Central crown

Cardinals secure NL Central crown

DENVER -- 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.

"To have a game like this against the Rockies, playing so well, it's exactly the way you'd like to win it," manager Tony La Russa beamed in his office.

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 La Russa. Now they will aim for their third NL pennant in six years, 18th in franchise history and ultimately their 11th world championship.

"It never gets old," said Albert Pujols, who is going to the playoffs for the sixth time in his nine Major League seasons. "This is what you play for. This is what you train for. This is what you get yourself ready in Spring Training for 30-some games -- to be able to get to the postseason and play in October and have the opportunity to be one of the final [teams] to be in the World Series."

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.

And then there are players like Ryan Ludwick, Brendan Ryan and Skip Schumaker, key Cardinals who have never played in the postseason. Ludwick was all but overcome in the champagne-drenched clubhouse, reveling in a dream that at times seemed like it might never arrive. Ludwick, who has been playing professionally since 1999, hit a pinch-hit two-run homer that helped salt away the clinching win.

"I don't even care about me right now," Ludwick said. "This is all about the team. All the hard work we put in, all the offseason, Spring Training, the additions that came over and helped out tremendously, everybody. This whole team deserves a pat on the back. But our business isn't over yet. This is a first step. For me, you grow up as a kid dreaming about playing in a World Series, and this is the first step."

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.

"When you look back at the year, the success that we had in April really propelled us to do what we did in late June and July," Mozeliak said. "We were in our division [race]. We knew we had the right pieces in place as far as ... as pitching, and we just had to make some adjustments to our offensive club. And I think the deals we did accomplished just that and led up to an evening like tonight."

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.

"I thought I was going to be home pretty early," said DeRosa, who was toiling for a struggling Cleveland team before being traded. "I was very lucky. I told 'Mo' and Tony when the final out was made, 'Thank you for making me a part of this.' This is special."

The restructured team went from one of three or four contenders for a division title to the clear favorite. The Cardinals 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. As of the end of the night on Saturday, it was 8 1/2 games with eight days to play.

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.

Schumaker and Ryan, products of the Cardinals' farm system, may appreciate the triumph more than anyone. They came through the Minors as St. Louis was dominating the National League in the middle of this decade. Neither got to be a part of the postseason runs from 2004-06, although Schumaker did appear in the regular season for the '06 team.

Now they get to join the franchise's honor roll as champions.

"You watch some of those great teams we had, watched them coming up in the Minors," Ryan said. "And now to be a part of it, be at this level and celebrate, it makes all the hard work worthwhile."

Said Schumaker: "This is one of the better days of my life. I lost a lot of sleep at night during Spring Training. I didn't know where I was going to be or how this was going to work. They stuck with me. To get to the playoffs now, from where I started, is incredible. It's just so special."

Carpenter came back from nearly two full seasons missed to pitch as well as anyone in the NL. 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.

"It's just awesome," Pujols said. "We have a great group of guys and we're going to continue, hopefully, to win. Hopefully go into the postseason with the attitude that we've had since day one of the season, which is getting to the World Series. This is just one step that you take. It doesn't stop here."

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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