Cubs clinch NL Central title, taking down Cardinals and building their own empire

ST. LOUIS – Once upon a time, the Cubs filed into Busch Stadium’s visiting clubhouse after a one-run loss to the St. Louis Cardinals and began the rookie hazing for their flight to the West Coast.
This was Sept. 25, 2011, the final days of a 91-loss season that promised sweeping changes throughout the organization. With longtime general manager Jim Hendry already fired and manager Mike Quade awaiting the same fate, this felt like a substitute teacher trying to control an unruly classroom.
One player fumed while dressing up as a Chinese food takeout box, but it was mostly time to crack open some beers and laugh at the silly costumes, one of Major League Baseball’s stupid rituals. As one coach surveyed the scene, his face turned a color that made it look like steam would come out of his ears, bothered by how quickly these Cubs flushed it away, the day after another Carlos Marmol meltdown had led to a walk-off loss against their rivals.
The balance of power would slowly begin to shift within the next 28 days. Chairman Tom Ricketts would meet with Theo Epstein at his family’s New York City residence overlooking Central Park. A rock-star executive would leave his dream job with his hometown Boston Red Sox and give a “Baseball is Better” speech at a Wrigley Field press conference. And a Cardinals team that didn’t sneak into the playoffs until the final day of the regular season would win the franchise’s 11th World Series title in the walk year for St. Louis icons Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols.
Now look at the After photo: The Cubs officially clinched their second straight National League Central title at 8:50 p.m. on Wednesday when Leonys Martin caught Randal Grichuk’s flyball in center field, securing a 5-1 win over their archrivals. The Cubs have come so far that the on-field celebration felt a little muted, a mosh pit around All-Star closer Wade Davis and the obligatory pose with the W flag.     
Maybe it was more a sense of relief than exhilaration, because this hangover lasted at least until the All-Star break, when the Cubs had sunk to 43-45 and needed the shocking Jose Quintana trade with the White Sox to jolt the clubhouse and boost the energy level. 
The 2012 Cardinals had been the last defending World Series champions to make the playoffs the following season. The 2009 Philadelphia Phillies and the 2002 Arizona Diamondbacks had been the only defending World Series champions within the last 15 seasons to win their division the next year. 
“The post-World Series effect is real,” Epstein said. “That’s nothing to be ashamed of. But I think there’s always an opportunity to focus and elevate the caliber of play at a really important time. And our guys have absolutely done that.” 
Just look at John Lackey – the last pitcher to win a playoff game for the Cardinals in the 2015 series that showed the Cubs would never fear St. Louis again – allowing one run on two hits across six innings in a Big Boy Game that might have been his last one before disappearing into retirement. 
Just look at the relentless attack that made the Cubs inscribe “WE NEVER QUIT” on their championship rings. This lineup ambushed Michael Wacha in the seventh inning with five straight hits, Addison Russell launching a 92-mph fastball 383 feet, just inside the left-field foul pole for a three-run homer, a 1-0 deficit quickly turning into a 5-1 lead.
This is exactly what manager Joe Maddon envisioned when he used an escape clause in his contract with the Tampa Bay Rays, a small-market team that stood up to the Red Sox and New York Yankees, the superpowers in the American League East.
Beginning with that 2015 turnaround season, Maddon played mind games with the Cardinals, comparing them to “The Sopranos,” forcing Busch Stadium staff to bend the rules for Cubs fans wearing “Try Not To Suck” T-shirts and encouraging Russell to bring out a tray of nachos on Monday night and take an in-game selfie with Nacho Man.
“My first take when I got here was that had to be done,” Maddon said. “It was no different than in Tampa Bay with the Yankees and the Red Sox. I mean, my God, when people would talk about those teams, I’d understand why they were beating ‘em up. 
“You got to feel confidence in yourself. You got to believe that you can do. You got to believe it before you can do it ever. 
“You got to take things, man. They’re not ever going to give it up. This team’s a proud, wonderful organization with one of the best histories in all of major league sports. There’s nothing that’s going to come easily when you play against St. Louis, especially here.
“But it was something that we had to do in order to ascend.”
Another team official noticed the real or imagined slights all the way down to the golf cart decorated with St. Louis playoff decals that used to be parked outside the visiting clubhouse when the Cubs came to town. All the ups and downs – this season and throughout the franchise’s star-crossed history – made the idea of celebrating within that room so sweet. 
“That’s for you guys to write about more than us,” said Jon Lester, the big-game pitcher who changed everything when he decided to sign a $155 million megadeal with a last-place team after the 2014 season. “This is nice. But if we did it at home, if we did it in Cincinnati, if we did it in Texas, it doesn’t matter. It all means the same.”
This means the Cardinals are dangerously close to missing the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, something that’s happened to this proud franchise just once since 2000. The Cubs are 13-5 against St. Louis this season and want to build a bigger and better empire. The Cubs are already what the Cardinals used to be, the team that pounces on mistakes, plays the game a certain way and expects to dominate October.
“They’re fearless,” Maddon said. “I don’t think we take anything for granted. They’re not afraid of making mistakes. And I think we really do like the bigger moment.