St. Louis moves its clinching party to Chicago, presenting the Cubs and their fans with a nightmarish scenario to ponder.
Manager Tony La Russa and his players can celebrate their second straight division title with a victory Thursday night at Wrigley Field, rubbing it in the noses of their 107-year-old rivals.
The Cardinals come to town with a magic number of one, meaning they can do no worse than share the title. Beating one of their least-favorite pitchers, Cubs starter Mark Prior, undoubtedly would increase the pleasure factor if they manage to do it Thursday.
Asked about the possibility before Wednesday night's 11-inning, 7-4 loss to Cincinnati, manager Dusty Baker conceded it would be an unpleasant experience.
"It'd be tough to face," he said. "It's inevitable they're going to clinch on somebody. We'd rather not have it here, but our whole thing is, we have to play to win. We can't think about them. We have to think about ourselves."
They did plenty of thinking Wednesday after Sean Casey's three-run double off Rich Hill in the 11th sealed their fate.
And they will have plenty of time to think about themselves this off-season, when management attempts to find a way to compete with the Cardinals in the Central Division. They finished 16 games behind them in 2004 and were 20 games back going into their game with the Reds.
Wednesday night the Cubs showed again why this season has been so difficult to digest, blowing an early 3-0 lead in mind-numbing fashion, only to bounce back on Todd Walker's game-tying solo home run in the eighth.
Leading 3-1 in the eighth thanks to seven strong innings from Jerome Williams, the Cubs had one of those innings when everything that could go wrong did. After the Reds pulled to within a run, Nomar Garciaparra failed to handle a sharp grounder by Jason LaRue on a play that was ruled a double, putting runners on second and third with one out.
Will Ohman came in and promptly balked home the tying run before making his first pitch, then gave up the go-ahead RBI single to Javier Valentin before being booed off the field.
Now if the Cubs expect the Cardinals to pretend it's not a treat to clinch in front of them, they may be in for a big surprise.
"If they [had] been a little bit closer it would probably be a little more special," ex-Cubs second baseman Mark Grudzielanek said after a loss to Pittsburgh. "But it's one of those things where I don't think they've really got their thing together."
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