Cubs back in playoffs after beating Cardinals to clinch division

ST. LOUIS -- The defending World Series winner is back in the playoffs for the first time since 2012, as the Chicago Cubs clinched the National League Central division with a 5-1 win over the Cardinals on Wednesday night.

The Cubs weren't exactly wire-to-wire winners, but nonetheless, they'll get a chance to repeat as champions. No team from the National League has won back-to-back titles since the 1975-76 Cincinnati Reds, known as the Big Red Machine.

It is the Cubs' second consecutive division title and third straight trip to the playoffs, the first time the franchise has accomplished the latter feat since 1906-08. It's just the second time in the divisional era that they've taken their division in back-to-back years.

The Cubs were 5.5 games out of first place and two games under. 500 at the All-Star break, but they went on a 46-24 run in the season's second half, compiling the best record in the National League. Later hot streaks have been a trademark of Joe Maddon teams, as Chicago is 146-72, combined, in the second half during his tenure as manager.

The Cubs don't think that's a coincidence, as he stresses rest and less work more than many managers, believing it allows players the proper energy for the final months of the season. It's one reason he was happy to get it over with by clinching a playoff spot on Wednesday.

"When you get to this position, you want to get it done as quickly as you can for that reason [rest]," Maddon said before the game. "Get guys off their feet and get it off their minds."

The Cubs will take on the Washington Nationals in the divisional round of the playoffs, which start late next week. The Nationals already have clinched home-field advantage for that series.

Nationals manager Dusty Baker managed the Cubs from 2003 to 2006, taking them within one game of the World Series in his first season. That was the year in which Steve Bartman was accused of interfering with a foul ball as part of a blown eighth-inning lead against the Florida Marlins in the National League Championship Series. The Cubs lost that game and the series.

Bartman ended up receiving a World Series ring as part of last year's celebration. The Cubs are vying for another title this fall.