Cubs hold off Cards en route to second straight Central crown

CHICAGO -- The Chicago Cubs stormed up the dugout steps, spraying champagne bottles the whole way. Then came a victory lap around Wrigley Field to douse their loyal fans and soak up a second straight NL Central title.

It was a joyous scene, one they hope to top in October.

"It's a relief and you have to let it out and enjoy it," first baseman Derrek Lee said after Saturday's 5-4 win over the St. Louis Cardinals wrapped up the division championship. "We're still trying to get to our ultimate goal. We still have a lot of work to do."

The 41,597 fans jammed into the old neighborhood ballpark were ready to party as they watched the Cubs earn back-to-back postseason appearances for the first time since they participated in three straight World Series from 1906-08.

And no one can forget 1908. That's the last time the Cubs won the World Series, a 100-year championship drought they've been hearing about since they were swept out of the playoffs in the first round a year ago by Arizona.

"This team has got to stand on its own merit," a wet but happy manager Lou Piniella said.

"We'll give everything we can in the postseason. That's all we can do."

As usual, nothing comes easy for the Cubs. And it didn't Saturday, either.

Ted Lilly (16-9) was sailing along with a 5-0 lead when the Cardinals scored four runs with two out in the sixth, including a three-run homer by Troy Glaus.

St. Louis fell six games back in the wild-card race and has eight games remaining on its schedule.

Lilly regrouped in the seventh and relievers Carlos Marmol and Wood held off the Cardinals. Wood gave up a leadoff walk to Glaus in the ninth before finishing for his 32nd save in 39 chances.

Aaron Miles' game-ending flyout set off a celebration on the mound as Wood's teammates stormed from the dugout and bullpen.

"We're looking at the big picture and it's nice to get in," said Wood, who's been with the Cubs longer than any other current player -- he was Rookie of the Year in 1998. It will be his fourth trip to the playoffs.

"We expected to get in and be in this spot and we're going to enjoy it tonight and probably a little bit in the morning," Wood said.

Piniella went to the grass between the third-base line and mound and hugged his players as they came of the field. Some players waved to the fans as they headed into the dugout -- Chicago clinched on the road last season.

"We're celebrating this, kinda of giving back to the fans," Lilly said. "No question they are a big reason why we are here."

And so is the attitude of the team, he said.

"We all want the same thing. You don't have guys who are looking to do anything other than win a championship," Lilly added. "So it's a pretty special thing to be a part of."

The fans didn't want to leave. Several thousand hung out behind the home dugout nearly an hour after the game, shouting "We want Lou." And finally, Piniella emerged from the dugout onto the field, as did general manager Jim Hendry, who built the team and then saluted his players.

"They pretty much felt all year they were going to end up right here today and get the first step done and you can see how they are handling it," Hendry said.

"They should be enjoying it, but you can tell they got some other business on their mind to take care of this year."

The Cubs got a couple of breaks from the Cardinals' shaky fielding to build the five-run cushion, and Lilly added a squeeze bunt for an RBI.

"They're a good club, you can't give them those opportunities," St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said.

Chicago loaded the bases in the second on two walks and former Cardinals star Jim Edmonds' double. Alfonso Soriano singled in a pair with two outs and a third run scored when the ball got by left fielder Brian Barton.

Chicago added two in the fourth off Joel Pineiro (6-7), taking advantage of third baseman Glaus' error.

Now, Piniella can give his team some rest while prepping for the playoffs.

After losing three straight to the Diamondbacks a year ago, the Cubs were active in the offseason and stayed busy during the year. They signed Japanese outfielder Kosuke Fukudome, who has slumped in the second half, to a $48 million, four-year contract. They picked up castoffs Edmonds and Reed Johnson, and they've formed a solid platoon in center field. And they brought in hard-throwing Rich Harden in a July trade with Oakland to bolster an already strong rotation.

There was also a pivotal change in the pitching staff.

Ryan Dempster, now a 16-game winner, went from closer to starter. And one-time ace Wood, whose career has been sidetracked by injuries, made the transition to closer with a fastball still registering in the mid 90s.

Catcher Geovany Soto emerged as a handler of pitchers and one of the team's most potent bats.

Add in the 65-year-old Piniella's wisdom, his humor, occasional angry outburst and his ability to use all his players and the Cubs have another division winner. Last year they overcame a slow start to overtake Milwaukee. This year they've been in first or tied for it since May 11.

Game notes
Leo Hildebrand, 104-year-old Cubs fan who lives in nearby Bensenville, threw out the first pitch. ... Pineiro had flown home Thursday to Florida to be with his wife as she delivered twins and then made it back to Chicago on Friday evening. ... With one regular-season home game left Sunday, The Cubs have now drawn a single-season attendance record of 3,259,649. ... Lilly set a career best for wins.