Cardinals 5, Cubs 1

By 3:20 on the big clock in center field, decorum in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field gave way to a stampede of red. Todd Walker's gentle ground ball slipped into the glove of St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols, and something burst in the National League's best team.

The Cardinals thundered up the stairs that lead to the visitors clubhouse, passing over the concourse where their fans had run amok in their enemy's home, singing, dancing and chanting "This is our house!" Once inside, Manager Tony La Russa grabbed a bottle of champagne and thrust it into the hands of third baseman Abraham Nunez, the lone significant player on this team who had never celebrated a title before.

Nunez smiled, thanked the Lord, then popped the cork, setting off an hour of mayhem. Grown men poured beer down the backs of each other's shirts, even their pants, until it seemed there was nothing left to empty. That's when a handful of players grabbed a giant rubber tub of ice and water and poured it over the head of second baseman Mark Grudzielanek.

Just outside the clubhouse, La Russa smiled as he talked about this 5-1 victory over the Chicago Cubs. It was like so many of the others this year, he surmised. Starter Mark Mulder gave up only one run in seven innings, the Cardinals made some good defensive plays and the hitters found a way to manufacture enough runs to win the game.

"We got guys on, moved them over and drove them in," he said, a mantra he has uttered for much of the season.

But there was something different in the way St. Louis celebrated its Central Division title on Saturday. For the Cardinals, they had clinched their fourth division title in six years on Thursday night, but delayed the celebration until they won their 95th game, ensuring the Houston Astros could not somehow tie their win total.

But they roared on mostly because there is a sense among these players that despite what will likely be a 100-win season, they had to grapple with an invisible force that kept standing in their way. They had to adjust to new teammates after pieces of last year's World Series team left in free agency. They had to endure an injury to third baseman Scott Rolen that kept him out most of the season and lesser injuries to key players such as Grudzielanek and outfielder Reggie Sanders.

"This team had to fight every day," shortstop David Eckstein said. "That's what gets lost when people talk about us. This club has been unbelievable, this club has withstood so many injuries. It's a grind. A lot of media had us winning the division in April but it's not that simple."

Someone in the clubhouse yelled that the fans were still gathered in the concourse outside. Several players ripped back the tarp that blocked them from the throng below and gazed in amazement at the sea of red that spilled down the hall. They waved and the fans roared. They poured beer on the fans and the fans begged for more. Soon champagne bottles were produced and corks rocketed into the throng followed by showers of bubbling liquid.

Several players grabbed another giant rubber tub of water and ice and heaved the contents off the staircase. Grim-faced security guards had to help a woman, stunned and shivering, out of the stadium.

The guards need not have worried; this was love. Perhaps no team is as ingrained in the fabric of its community as the Cardinals are in St. Louis. As the 95th victory approached, St. Louis fans flocked to Wrigley Field until it looked like the place was 75 percent red. And when it was over and the guards were trying to usher everyone to the gates, they wouldn't leave.

"Wasn't that awesome?" Pujols said.

One by one the Cardinals appeared at the crack in the tarp to soak in the adulation in this most unlikely of settings. The players waved, the fans howled. And for this moment, Wrigley Field, their hated rival's home, belonged to them.