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CHC@STL: Cardinals clinch the NL Central crown

ST. LOUIS -- In a 7-0 win over the Cubs on Friday night, the Cardinals captured the National League Central title by showcasing why they should be considered a serious contender for the franchise's 12th World Series championship.

There were the early hits with runners in scoring position, the trademark of this 2013 bunch, and unrelenting efforts by the offense late. NL Most Valuable Player Award candidate Yadier Molina drove in three. Jon Jay extended his hitting streak to 12 games. Matt Holliday inched closer to .300 with the 250th home run of his career.

A lineup that will be sans Allen Craig through at least the NL Division Series has compensated for his absence. The club is 16-6 since Craig left a Sept. 4 game, having turned a two-run division deficit into a three-game cushion with two games remaining. That was enough to hold off, first, the Reds, and, finally, the Pirates.

It was enough, too, to ensure no repeat visit to the Wild Card Game.

"We wanted to win the Central," said winning pitcher Lance Lynn, who finishes the season 15-10. "We had to face that Wild Card Game last year, and it's not a fun game to be a part of. You have two good teams that are deserving of being in the playoffs in that Wild Card Game and only one wins. We didn't want to be a part of that."

Lynn further substantiated his September resurgence with six shutout innings that also extended the rotation's month-long roll. The starting staff hasn't put together a month this good since April, when it was the best in the Majors.

The end of the Cardinals' hard push to win the division was celebrated in front 44,030 at Busch Stadium before champagne spraying commenced in the home clubhouse.

"That was pretty special to do it in front of this crowd and how jazzed they were," manager Mike Matheny said. "The guys delivered from the top and kept going. It was a great day. Lance had good stuff going. Overall, if you had to draw it up, this would be a good way to draw it."

Though this is the third straight postseason berth for the Cardinals, it's the organization's first NL Central title since 2009.

"Man, this is special winning the division," David Freese said. "I know we've gotten the Wild Card the last couple years. A six-month grind to hold off two great teams, this is a special deal, and I think we're all embracing this and understanding what we accomplished."

Friday also brought with it some clarity in the larger playoff picture. The Cardinals are now assured of having home-field advantage in the NLDS and remain tied with the Braves in the race for the NL's best record. The winner of that pursuit would host the Wild Card Game winner (either Pittsburgh or Cincinnati). The other will match up against the Dodgers.

The Cardinals eliminated the drama early, jumping out to a 3-0 lead against Cubs starter Travis Wood in the first. Four two-out hits -- including Molina's two-run double and Jay's RBI single -- marred Wood's lone inning. Cubs manager Dale Sveum, by design, pulled Wood after his season innings total hit 200.

For the Cubs, this would be the third time in five games that they have had to watch another team celebrate their postseason invitation, following Atlanta and Pittsburgh.

"You get tired of it, but at this time of year, somebody's got to clinch against somebody," Wood said. "Unfortunately, we've been the team a couple times. Hats off to them. Everybody that's clinched has been an outstanding team."

Freese, who has hit safely in 11 of his last 14 games, connected for a solo homer in the third. Holliday, who reached base five times in his second game back from back spasms, launched his 21st homer in the sixth, finishing the game at .299. In between, Molina added another run-scoring hit that established his best single-season RBIs total at 78.

He's also the first catcher since Ivan Rodriguez in 1996 to hit 43 doubles.

It was all much more offensive support than Lynn would need. He opened his final regular-season start by striking out eight of the first 11 batters he faced. Lynn added one more to that total in his 98-pitch night to finish the season at 198 strikeouts. He surpassed 200 innings for the first time.

The Cubs managed only four hits off Lynn, and leadoff hitter Starlin Castro had three of them. Not until Castro doubled in the sixth did Chicago advance a runner into scoring position.

Lynn's dominance gave the Cardinals further reason to believe he's past his second-half hiccup. Since losing five straight decisions, Lynn has strung together four consecutive quality starts. All combined, he's allowed 19 hits, three earned runs and seven walks with 30 strikeouts in those 24 2/3 innings.

"That may sound ridiculous for a guy who has won 18 games [in 2012], but he's still finding those little minor things that make him consistent," Matheny said. "I think he's getting there. Every step he takes he learns a little more about himself. His stuff, his heart, his grit sets him up be a very special pitcher."

Lynn's performance on Friday also lowered the rotation's September ERA to 2.50. It was more than two runs higher in August.

"As a group, we were able to stay together and talk our way through it," Lynn said. "Hopefully, we're where we need to be down the stretch now."

Four relievers preserved the team's 14th shutout and second in three games. Matheny also found an opportunity to get struggling Edward Mujica a chance to take the mound for the first time in a week. Mujica retired the only batter he faced on one seventh-inning pitch.

Trevor Rosenthal set off the on-field celebration by inducing the game-ending groundout to Matt Carpenter.

"We have had arguably the toughest division in the National League, if not the big leagues," said Carpenter, who is one hit shy of 200. "We battled the whole way. We had some tough breaks. We lost some key guys. And we kept pushing forward.

"It has been a special year And we're not done."

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