Cubs groove to a now-familiar jam: Earning an October return

Lester toasts Lackey to celebrate his final regular-season start (0:39)

The Cubs' Jon Lester credits teammate John Lackey for his knowledge of the game, raising a drink to Lackey after what was probably his last regular-season start. (0:39)

ST. LOUIS -- When you’re on your eighth champagne celebration since 2015, you kind of have an idea how it’s going to go down. The Chicago Cubs are getting used to these parties, as they lit up the St. Louis Cardinals' visiting locker room Wednesday night after a 5-1 victory that earned them the National League Central division title for the second consecutive season.

Repeating as division champs isn’t the norm for World Series winners. The Cubs are the first to do so since the 2009 Philadelphia Phillies.

“We’ve created a culture here where it's win or bust,” first baseman Anthony Rizzo said as he got splashed in the face with beer. “We’re not supposed to be here. I know on paper we are, but after a championship season, the numbers, the studies, the stats show we shouldn’t be here. People don’t do this. We’ve done it, and it feels good. And we’re in a good spot going into the postseason. We’re rolling.”

The postseason is indeed calling, and now that the Cubs have navigated one run through October and early November, there was only one thing on their minds during this celebration. As is tradition, a few minutes into the celebration, the music got turned off, and bench coach Davey Martinez took center stage with players and other coaches surrounding him.

“We don’t stop here, boys,” Martinez yelled. “We have 11 more. Eleven f---ing more. Let’s keeping it going! Let’s keep it rolling!”

Then the chant began, starting softly before reaching a crescendo.

“Eleven more, 11 more, 11 more!” the Cubs yelled in unison.

The music came back up, and the beer and champagne flowed again. The party was on. But there was one more stoppage. This one more emotional, as the team searched for Wednesday’s winner, 38-year-old John Lackey.

“Where’s Lackey?” players called out.

He showed, finally, and took his turn center stage, next to his good friend and teammate Jon Lester.

“He didn’t come here for no f---ing haircut, boys,” Lester exclaimed.

That’s a riff on one of Lackey’s more famous moments with the media, in 2016, when he declared that he and the Cubs were “there to win some jewelry” -- not a haircut. Players cheered at Lester’s recalling of that line, then got quiet as the veteran continued talking.

“I’ve had the pleasure of calling this guy a teammate for eight years,” Lester said. “I’ve learned a lot about the game from this guy, and I’m sure you guys have to. He’s one of the best teammates and best people I’ve gotten to play with. Tonight was probably his last regular-season start. Here’s to one helluva f---ing career.”

Champagne got sprayed all over the pair, as everyone is aware Lackey’s contract is up after this season, but until then, it was unknown whether he would seek a new one with the Cubs or any other team. After the hoopla died down -- in true, cranky Lackey fashion -- he waved off reporters wanting to know if he was indeed finished after the postseason.

“I don’t know,” manager Joe Maddon said a few minutes later outside his office. “I have not gotten anything official from Lackey. Who knows?”

Later, during the celebration, Lester reflected more on his best friend in the game.

“Whoever has played with this guy, I’m sure 99.9 percent of the guys say they love him,” Lester said. “I hated him when he was with the Angels. We went toe-to-toe a couple times. As a teammate, as a man, he’s family to me. You don’t have many guys like that in this game.”

The Cubs' manager, meanwhile, wasn’t the center of attention on this night; he was off to the side, allowing his players to let loose. But both Maddon and team president Theo Epstein -- who was drenched in champagne and beer -- had time to reflect on what was a very different 2017 season. At least, it was different than the previous year, when the Cubs led wire-to-wire during the regular season before winning it all in a dramatic postseason. This year was much rockier: They were under .500 at the All-Star break and trailing the upstart Milwaukee Brewers.

“Coming off the World Series victory, you expect some mental lethargy early in the season,” Maddon said. “It’s just going to be there. April and May don’t supply that same kind of adrenaline you need in August and September. It just doesn’t. When you play this game and [have] been to the top, people become adrenaline junkies. You need that rush to get it going. I was aware of that. I learned that in 2003 [with the Angels] and 2009 [with the Rays]. Knowing that, I didn’t want to overreact to anything. The division didn’t run away from us. That was part of it too.”

The Cubs still needed to go on the run that eluded them for more than half the season. After getting another soaking from other front-office members, Epstein recalled the moments in the second half that will stay with him. The turnaround began right away.

“Coming out of the break, that first inning [in Baltimore], we went [Willson] Contreras three-run bomb, then [Kyle] Schwarber beautiful swing, oppo, crushed it, homer. We kind of sat back in our seats and said, ‘Here we go.’”

Epstein admitted that there were still some down moments in the second half, the worst of which came when the Brewers swept the Cubs in early September at Wrigley Field. But that’s when they responded with some of their best baseball.

“After that Milwaukee sweep, you could actually see us elevate our focus and intensity,” Epstein said. “The at-bats got a lot more disciplined. We played with a great energy and focus. The home sweep against the Cardinals [the next weekend], the series in Milwaukee [winning three of four] and how we came out of the break. Those three moments.”

Epstein’s take came near the end of the party, at least in the Cubs' clubhouse. It will continue elsewhere, as "this team knows how to party," pitcher Kyle Hendricks reminded everyone. Then the Cubs will get back to the business of the postseason. And they’ll do it with an experienced and nearly healthy team.

Near the end of the night, a newcomer to the team and a veteran leader spoke about what he likes most about the Cubs in this era. Catcher Alex Avila smiled while thoughtfully puffing on a cigar and explained what makes them unique and potentially a dynasty still.

“The one thing I see from this team, that stands out to me, is the depth we have,” Avila said. “We are deep. On any given night, you look at our bench, they could probably be starters on any other team. It allows Joe to play those matchups and bring guys in over the course of the game that are solid players. The depth stands out.”

The last word comes from one of the Cubs' true leaders, now that he has established himself in the locker room. Jason Heyward gave a famous speech last fall, and he hasn’t stopped leading since. He held court as the craziness ensued around him.

“The biggest thing I’m proud of with these people in here is we rise to every challenge,” Heyward said. “We look it right in the eye, and we have fun with it. We don’t know how it’s going to work out, but we rise to the challenge and take it on.”

Then Heyward got doused by a contingent of players who were behind him taking selfies. The fun continued for a while longer, with Heyward’s sentiments still in the air.

The Cubs have met every challenge so far. Can they meet the next set of them just as well? Stay tuned.

Music, off.