Cardinals Capture Division Championship

Call Jim Edmonds the St. Louis Cardinals’ surrogate Big Mac.

Edmonds’ bat carried the St. Louis offense much of the year, and his grand slam kick-started the 11-6 victory over the Houston Astros that clinched the NL Central championship Wednesday night.

After Edmonds’ third-inning slam, the Cardinals homered four more times — two each by Ray Lankford and Craig Paquette — to win their first division title since 1996.

“I didn’t think it’d be this long,” said Lankford, one of only three players left from the last title. “But it’s sweet. It’s good to be back and we’re definitely going to make the most of it.”

The Cardinals are the first team in the major leagues to clinch a postseason berth.

“Edmonds got it started, and we were relentless,” manager Tony La Russa shouted during a raucous post-game champagne-spraying celebration in the clubhouse. “It was just a relentless night.”

A Team Effort

Edmonds has a career-high 41 homers, eight more than his previous best in 1995. His power has helped fill the void left by Mark McGwire, who missed two months with a knee injury and has been reduced to pinch-hitting since being activated Sept. 8.

McGwire, 3-for-8 with two homers since his return, was a bit player in the clincher. He was hit by a pitch leading off the bottom of the eighth, then removed for a pinch runner because he’s still having difficulty running and bending.

It’s extremely doubtful he’ll be able to play first base when the playoffs begin in the first week of October. But after the clincher, McGwire roamed the clubhouse in search of teammates to spray with champagne, happy not to be the focal point for once.

“This is what baseball is all about,” McGwire shouted. “This is what I’ve been trying to preach the last couple years. It’s a team sport.”

Astros End Winning Streak

The three years after the 1996 title, the Cardinals were a combined 23 games below .500 with the Astros winning the Central each time. McGwire, who hit a record 70 homers in 1998 and 65 last year, was the only thing the fans cared about.

Not anymore. A sellout crowd was on its feet when Tim Bogar lined to second baseman Fernando Vina for the final out. As fireworks exploded overhead, the Cardinals rushed to celebrate on the mound.

The Astros, whose five-game winning streak ended, left quietly.

“I just got off the field as quick as possible,” Bogar said. “I didn’t want to watch the celebration. This is the last thing I wanted, to watch them celebrate.”

La Russa won his seventh division crown, doing it four times in Oakland and once with the Chicago White Sox.

“The latest is always the best one,” La Russa said. “I guarantee it.”

Richard Hidalgo hit his 41st homer for Houston. Jeff Bagwell had an RBI double and scored his major league-leading 147th run, breaking the Astros record set by Craig Biggio in 1997.

Record Season

A crowd of 38,653, watching in 59-degree weather, was the 34th sellout of the season for the Cardinals. That broke the team record set in 1988, one of several on the night. They also:

—Hit consecutive homers for the 15th time, matching the NL mark set by the 1956 Cincinnati Reds. The Cardinals missed a 16th time when Paquette and Lankford connected in the seventh off Brian Powell, with an Edmonds’ strikeout in between.

—Hit their 11th grand slam, extending the team’s single-season record.

—Hit their 228th homer, breaking the team record of 223 set in 1998. That was the year McGwire hit a record 70.

Rookie Rick Ankiel (10-7) was also on his game, allowing three runs — two earned — on four hits in seven innings with eight strikeouts. He held the Astros, who had scored 47 runs during their winning streak, hitless the first four innings.

“My first year in the big leagues and I get a chance to experience something like this, it’s amazing,” Ankiel said.

Holt (7-15) lasted four innings, allowing eight runs on eight hits.

“Tonight was just their night,” Holt said. “Every pitch that I left up, they hit.”

Hidalgo hit his fifth homer in nine games at Busch Stadium this season in the sixth. Houston scored twice in the fifth on Raul Chavez’s bloop single and a sacrifice fly by Keith Ginter in his first major league plate appearance.

Vina added an RBI single in the fourth for the Cardinals and Edgar Renteria had a run-scoring groundout in the seventh.

Team Notes

Edmonds’ homer was his 40th as an outfielder, a team record. He has hit one as a first baseman. … Roger Cedeno had two hits for Houston and he’s 6-for-6 in the first two games of the series. … Ankiel has won only four of his last 16 starts, during which he’s 4-4. But the Cardinals are 11-5 in that stretch. … The Cardinals, who lost 8-6 in 10 innings Tuesday, haven’t lost consecutive games since Aug. 8-9 against the Marlins.