Chicago clinched the National League Central by beating St. Louis, 5-4. The club has consecutive division titles for the first time since 1907-08, when the Cubs last won the World Series with one division per league. They're the first NL club to secure a playoff spot.
"Just finishing is the most important thing," center fielder Jim Edmonds said. "You never know what can happen in the last week of the season, and you don't want to be anywhere near the pennant race, because it could be pretty crazy."
If the standings hold, they will host the Wild Card-leading Philadelphia Phillies on Oct. 1-2 in the first two games of a best-of-five National League Division Series. Games 3 and 4 (if necessary) would be in Philadelphia on Oct. 4-5. If the series goes to a decisive fifth game, it would be Oct. 7 at Wrigley Field. Philadelphia is only a half-game behind the Mets in the East, so the first-round opponent could easily change.
Teams from the same division cannot face each other in the Division Series. If Milwaukee, Houston or St. Louis wins the Wild Card, the Cubs, if they don't blow their seven-game lead atop the NL standings, will play the NL division champion with the worst record. The West-leading Dodgers are Chicago's likely opponent in that scenario, since they are 6 1/2 games behind the East-leading Mets.
The Cubs could help determine their first-round opponent since they play series at contenders New York and Milwaukee next week, plus an "if necessary" game at Houston on Sept. 29. That game, rescheduled because of Hurricane Ike, will only be played if it could affect the Astros' Wild Card chances.
"You've got to have fortune, you've got to have a little luck, you've got to stay a little healthy, you've got to have things go your way," manager Lou Piniella said. "We've got the talent here. We're a talented bunch. But, you know what? There are a lot of talented bunches that go into the postseason."
As of Saturday afternoon, the Cubs had five possible first-round opponents: Philadelphia, New York, Florida, Los Angeles and Arizona. The Cubs own a combined 18-11 record versus those teams this year. They're 5-2 against Los Angeles, 4-2 against Arizona, 4-3 against Florida and 3-4 against Philadelphia. They're 2-0 versus New York going into next week's series at Shea Stadium.
Piniella hasn't set his playoff pitching rotation yet, but his top four starters this season have clearly been Carlos Zambrano (14-6), Ryan Dempster (16-6), Rich Harden (5-1 since being traded from Oakland) and Ted Lilly (15-9). The current rotation setup has Zambrano, Lilly and Dempster due up for the first three playoff games, but that could change.
A quandary for any team that clinches early is whether to rest everyday players to get them re-energized for the playoffs or to avoid rust and keep everything as is. It's a debate that the Cubs must deal with over the final week.
"It really just depends if you're hot or cold," Edmonds said. "Every team that's hot wants to keep playing, and every team that's cold wants to rest."
Nick Zaccardi is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.