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Cards officially clinch Central title

CHICAGO (AP) -- They waited two days to celebrate their NL
Central championship and then the St. Louis Cardinals cut loose.

In a wild and raucous clubhouse with champagne and beer flowing
and spraying, the Cardinals doused one another and toasted a title
they had actually clinched Thursday.

They decided to put off the partying until their 95th victory,
which they got Saturday by beating by the Chicago Cubs 5-1. Now
there's no chance the second-place Houston Astros could tie their
win total with a miracle finish.

"It never gets old having the opportunity to throw some
champagne. This is so much fun," said shortstop David Eckstein, a
key addition after the Cardinals lost Edgar Renteria.

"Everybody talks about how great it is, but you don't really
realize it until you get to come fresh to this city [St. Louis].
It's amazing," a soaked Eckstein said. "Now you know why when
someone comes in, they don't want to leave."

For a while, the Cardinals didn't want to celebrate.

With a victory on Thursday night, St. Louis had already clinched
the division title because even if the Astros had tied, the
Cardinals held the tiebreaker on the basis of winning the season
series against Houston.

But they were able to celebrate in their own time, in their own
way.

After Saturday's victory, manager Tony La Russa stood by the
first base coaches box and hugged his players as they walked off
the field. A large contingent of red-clad Cardinals' fans cheered
from around the dugout.

Minutes later, inside the clubhouse, it was bedlam. Abraham
Nunez, who'd never been to the postseason in eight years with the
Pirates, got to pop the first cork.

A relatively dry La Russa was conducting his postgame news
conference in his office with a towel on his shoulder when he was
escorted to the center of the tiny visiting clubhouse at Wrigley
Field, surrounded and then drenched from all directions.

"You don't have much room in this clubhouse to get away,"
first baseman Albert Pujols said.

"It's a real dream come true to win here," La Russa said.
"Roland Hemond once told me to enjoy the moment and that's what
I'm going to do. The hardest thing to do is win the division. It
takes six months. Now we can look forward to playing in October."

St. Louis, swept by Boston in the World Series last year, has
won four of the last six division titles.

"Another opportunity for the World Series. A lot of players
retire and never get the opportunity for this," Pujols said.

Mark Mulder (16-7), another key offseason acquisition, allowed
eight hits and a run in seven innings and helped himself with a
squeeze bunt and single off Greg Maddux to get his first win since
Aug. 22.

"Everyone was making such a big deal about when we would
clinch. Now we can concentrate on moving on to the playoffs,"
Mulder said.

Maddux (12-13) will get three more starts to try and keep his
remarkable streak of 15-win seasons intact. He won at least 15
games for a major league-record 17 straight seasons, a stretch that
started in 1988 in the third year of his first stint with the Cubs.
The 39-year-old right-hander, who has 317 career wins, hasn't had a
losing record since going 6-14 in 1987.

Manager Dusty Baker said after the game that Maddux would get
the third and extra start.

"I don't care if we're out of it or not, if I've got a chance
to pitch, I want to," Maddux said, adding that the 15-victory
plateau is not that big of a deal.

"Probably not. For me, it's always been about pitching," he
said.

"It's always been about trying to find out how good you are.
Every fifth day, you try to find out, 'How good can I be today?' If
I get to do that an extra time this year, I'm more than happy to do
it."

Maddux went 6 1/3 innings, giving up 10 hits and five runs.

The Cardinals manufactured runs in the first and second innings.
David Eckstein led off with a single and on a hit-and-run reached
second as Jim Edmonds hit back to Maddux. Larry Walker's two-out
single made it 1-0.

Mark Grudzielanek walked in the second and after Abraham Nunez
forced him at second, Einar Diaz dropped a single to right to put
runners at first and third. With Nunez breaking for the plate,
Mulder dropped down a perfect squeeze bunt for a 2-0 lead.

Edmonds' fly to center hit the top of the ivy and bounced off
for a third-inning double as Cubs center fielder Corey Patterson
looked up and apparently thought it was a homer. Edmonds then made
third on a grounder and scored on Walker's second RBI single.

Jeromy Burnitz hit his 23rd homer in the sixth to end Mulder's
shutout bid. But Mulder beat out an infield hit and scored all the
way from first on Eckstein's double off the left-field wall for a
4-1 lead in the seventh. Edmonds followed with another RBI double
to finish Maddux and give the Cardinals a four-run cushion.

Game Notes
Cubs OF Jerry Hairston has a deep bone contusion after
fouling a ball off his left knee Friday. Trainer Mark O'Neal said
he's not sure when Hairston can play again but added he doesn't
expect him to miss all of the final two weeks. ... Pujols, trying
to catch Chicago's Derrek Lee for the batting title, went 1-for-4.
Lee was 1-for-3 and hit a hard smash to short in the fifth and was
thrown out on a great play by the 5-foot-7 Eckstein, who snagged
the high hop and saved a run. Pujols is batting .335, Lee .341.

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