Moments after his team had concluded a workout at Busch Stadium this morning, Jim Hanifan, coach of the St. Louis football Cardinals, walked into the office of Whitey Herzog, manager of the St. Louis baseball Cardinals.

"Just wanted to stop by to congratulate you, Whitey," Hanifan said. "You've had a great year."

"Almost," Herzog answered. "Almost."

Before dusk today, almost became absolutely. Before 44,825 delirious fans on a gray October afternoon, the Cardinals clinched the National League's East Division title with a 7-1 victory over the Chicago Cubs. Having finally put away the New York Mets, the Cardinals will open the National League playoffs Wednesday in Los Angeles against the Dodgers.

"I've never enjoyed a team more than this one," said a champagne-splattered Herzog, who has won five division championships as a manager here and in Kansas City. "Any other year, the Mets would have won this division. We've won 101 games and it took us 161 games to clinch it. It's a hell of a feeling."

The feelings in the Cardinals locker room -- delight, joy, relief -- were ones befitting a team that was picked to do nothing this season and ended up pulling out a superb pennant race by winning 14 of 15 games in mid-September to build a lead just big enough.

"This is special because so few people gave us a chance," said Ozzie Smith, the magician disguised as a shortstop. "Every guy in here earned this day. We really worked for it."

Today, the Cardinals did their work just the way they have all season. John Tudor raised his record to 21-8 with his 20th victory in 21 decisions. This one was a four-hitter in which he retired 14 straight batters.

Shortstop Smith made his daily phenomenal play. The roadrunners, Vince Coleman and Willie McGee, each tripled and ran down a couple of long outfield drives.

Cesar Cedeno, picked up Aug. 29 in what looked like a meangingless trade, had three hits, including a home run, and drove in the winning run. That gave him a batting average with St. Louis of .440 including six home runs, 18 RBI and four game-winning hits.

"If I'm dreaming all of this, then I hope I sleep as long as Rip van Winkle did," Cedeno said. "When I saw I was starting I said, 'This is going to be one of those games I never forget.' "

The Cardinals took a 1-0 lead in the second when Jack Clark walked, went to third on a bad-hop Cedeno single and scored on a Smith sacrifice fly.

The Cubs tied in the fourth when Keith Moreland singled Gary Matthews home. That turned out to be the Cubs' last hit until the ninth. But the crowd couldn't know that and so was nervously cheering each Montreal run in New York.

The nerves frayed a bit more when Cubs loser Steve Trout (9-7) pitched out of a bases-loaded, nobody-out jam in the fourth.

But in the fifth, the Cardinals began their push. It started when Smith made what Tudor called, "the most awesome play I've ever seen in baseball."

An exaggeration probably, but not by much. It was a line shot by Ron Cey, a one-hop, artificial-turf single if ever there was one. But Smith scrambled two steps to his right, flung his body headlong at the ball, glove arm hyperextended. The ball was cut off as Smith sprawled on the ground. He was up in no time and his throw beat Cey by a step.

"When people talk about our speed they always talk about our offense," second baseman Tommy Herr said. "They forget about our defense. We have three natural center fielders in the outfield and we have Ozzie. What can you say about Ozzie?"

With Tudor apparently in command, all that remained was for the Cardinals to come up with a couple of runs. In the sixth, they did.

Herr started it with a prototype Cardinals hit, a high artificial-turf chop to third. Clark singled on a 3-2 pitch with Herr, running all the way, taking third. Cedeno then hit a fly to deep left to make it 2-1. When Terry Pendleton followed with a single, Trout came out and Jay Baller came in. With two down, he intentionally walked catcher Tom Nieto to get to Tudor. That made sense, since Tudor was hitting .138. What didn't make sense was walking Tudor on four pitches to force in a run.

"I couldn't believe it," Tudor said. "They pitched around me."

Not quite. But it was 3-1. An inning later, it was 5-1. Willie McGee, the NL batting champion, tripled and Herr brought him home with his 13th sacrifice fly of the season. An out later, Cedeno launched his shot deep to left and the celebration began.

It continued while the Cardinals picked up two runs in the eighth and peaked when Andy Van Slyke ran down Ryne Sandberg's line drive in right field for the final out.

Herzog swigged champagne and owner August A. Busch, the 86-year-old patriarch of the franchise, sat next to him, smiling and drinking the beer with the same name.

A few feet away, McGee shook his head in exhaustion. "Maybe now we can relax for a day or two," he said. "This was really hard work."

But well worth the effort.