Cubs clinch NL Central crown

Cubs clinch NL Central crown

CINCINNATI -- When the Cubs came off the field after Friday's 6-0 win over the Cincinnati Reds, manager Lou Piniella saw the players show some emotion.

It wasn't relief, although that could be expected after losing three in a row to the last-place Florida Marlins, who then said the Cubs looked like they were panicking. What was it?

"A sense of accomplishment, of sorts," Piniella said. "It was really good to see. I like players who show some emotion at times. We need one more. I hope San Diego hangs on tonight, but if they don't, we need one more."

The Padres held on, and, the Chicago Cubs' season will continue. Get ready for baseball in October, Chicago. The Cubs are going to the postseason for the first time since 2003.

Alfonso Soriano hit a leadoff homer and threw out a baserunner at home, and Derrek Lee belted a two-run homer to back Carlos Zambrano and power the Cubs to victory over the Cincinnati Reds. The win, coupled with the Milwaukee Brewers' 6-3 loss to the San Diego Padres, gave the Cubs their first National League Central Division title since '03.

The 30 cases of champagne that traveled to Cincinnati were opened, and players had a private celebration in the visitors' clubhouse at Great American Ball Park.

"It's been a long summer," Piniella said. "We've been at it hot and heavy for a long, long time. You get off to a bad start, and you have to fight like heck to get to .500, then you have to fight to get above .500. Then we've been in a pennant race since the middle of August and we've been separated by a couple games. It's a long experience."

Zambrano (18-13) held the Reds to six hits, one walk and struck out four over seven shutout innings for his career-high 18th win. He finished the regular season with 177 strikeouts over a career-high 34 starts.

"They beat me four times this year," Zambrano said of the Reds. "This one was important. We started the season here. Before the game, I was thinking, 'Here we started, and here we'll finish this.' It's good to have a win today."

Despite the Marlins' sweep, the Cubs came into Friday's contest still in first. They had plenty of fans in the crowd of 32,193 at Great American Ball Park cheering them on.

"It helps when San Diego is winning ballgames against our opposition," Mark DeRosa said. "No one's panicked. We're in first place, and we control our own destiny. You've got to believe we're going to swing the bats better."

Which they did. Soriano got things started with his 32nd homer of the season, 13th this month, and 11th leadoff blast this year off an 0-2 pitch from Bronson Arroyo (9-15) in the first.

"I think what I did this month helped this team get to the playoffs," Soriano said. "I didn't have a very good April, and I had a very good September. I think this is when the team needed it, and I'm excited."

DeRosa and Jacque Jones both singled in the second, advanced on a passed ball by catcher Javier Valentin, and made it 2-0 on Ryan Theriot's sacrifice fly.

Soriano threw out Joey Votto at the plate as he tried to score on Edwin Encarnacion's single in the Reds' fourth for his 19th outfield assist, tying a club record set in 1951 by Hank Sauer.

"I'm happy they send them," Soriano said.

With two out and Soriano at second after a double in the fifth, Lee launched the first pitch from Arroyo into the left-field bleachers for his 22nd homer and a 4-0 lead. Jones added a two-run double with two outs in the eighth off Brad Salmon.

Piniella couldn't have scripted the game any better.

"This is the type of game we need to play -- we need to get good starting pitching, and we need to take leads and then we can turn the game over to the bullpen," he said. "That's really been the formula for our success."

The Cubs have posted the best record in the National League since June 23, going 51-37. They were 8 1/2 games back at one point.

"You've got professionals out there who play, No. 1, and you've got some nice talent here," Piniella said. "We got into a situation where the team in front of us gave us a chance to get back in the race and we hung in there and said, 'All right, now we can win this thing.' We've been getting after it for a long, long time. It's good to be where we're at now."

The Cubs weren't sure if they needed to win on Saturday and Sunday to secure the division. They were the only ones watching the scoreboard. In the eighth, when Lee went to the plate, the crowd suddenly erupted in cheers. The Padres had taken a 4-3 lead.

"I didn't know what was going on," Lee said.

The Cubs may not know who they will play until after Sunday's games, as they join the D-backs as the only other team to make it in thus far. One thing is certain -- Zambrano will start Game 1 of the National League Division Series.

"I'm ready, I'm excited," Zambrano said. "After I went to the playoffs in '03, I got thirsty and hungry for that first game. Now that I have more experience in the big leagues, I'm ready for the playoffs."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.