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CLINCHED! Cardinals claim 2022 NL Central crown, fourth consecutive playoff berth

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Watch assorted highlights from inside the Cardinals locker room celebration from Milwaukee as they clinch the 2022 NL Central Division Crown

MILWAUKEE — The first goal the Cardinals set for themselves in spring training, the gateway goal that would get them into the postseason and closer to achieving their loftiest ambition, is also the one Nolan Arenado has brought up several times in recent weeks as a reminder.

What the Cardinals do regularly, he’s yet to do in his career.

Until now.

Nine-time Gold Glove winner, seven-time All-Star and perennial MVP candidate Arenado is now a first-time division champion. He has the T-shirt to prove it.

It will likely need to be washed.

With a win as definitive as their lead in the division, the Cardinals claimed the National League Central crown Tuesday night with a 6-2 victory against second-place Milwaukee at American Family Field. The Cardinals earn their fourth consecutive playoff berth and will enter this year’s expanded format as the third seed in the NL playoffs.

By claiming the season series against the Brewers, the Cardinals earned the tiebreaker for the division title, their 13th shared or outright title of the NL Central. Since the division was created in the mid-1990s and chairman Bill DeWitt Jr.’s group began ownership, the Cardinals have more NL Central titles than the other four teams currently in the division combined. The Cardinals have won 16 division titles since MLB cleaved the leagues in halves and then thirds.

In today’s 10 a.m. video, columnist Ben Hochman discusses the Cardinals’ postseason berth and what’s next for the club. Plus, a happy birthday shoutout to former Big Red great Mel Gray! And, as always, Hochman picks a random St. Louis Cards card from the hat. Ten Hochman is presented by Window Nation!

“It will be the first time I’ve been a part of a team that won a division,” said Arenado, who was part of last year’s wild-card Cardinals after spending eight years with Colorado behind the Dodgers. “Having a chance to win the division. That’s what I envisioned (coming to St. Louis).”

The Cardinals seized control of the division in early August, flipped a four-game deficit into a four-game lead in less than three weeks and have not trailed in the standings since. The steadfast starter who played a part in both the Cardinals’ first-half hold and second-half surge, Miles Mikolas, pitched six superb innings and struck out nine. Fresh off a West Coast swing that featured most of their runs coming from homers, the Cardinals doubled down on the damage against Milwaukee. Dylan Carlson doubled twice and scored in the first six innings, and four of the Cardinals’ five early rallies hinged around a double.

Before Mikolas (12-13) allowed a hit, the Cardinals had a four-run lead. Before he allowed a run on a solo homer, the Cardinals were well on their way to unboxing the Champagne. Plastic would soon be going up in the clubhouse to protect whatever hangs in their lockers. The decal for the latest division title would have to be delivered.

Rookie Brendan Donovan led off the game with a double, took third on a ground ball and scored on a sacrifice fly.

And they were off.

The Cardinals had nibbled and pecked away at their magic number for the past week, losing four of six in San Diego and Los Angeles and going one stretch with only one run in four games. But in their first chance head to head with the Brewers, the Cardinals took control early.

Ryan Helsley pitched two scoreless innings to complete the win and give the Cardinals their first division title since 2019, their second since 2015.

The Cardinals also won their 90th game to give them 39 seasons with at least 90 wins in their 131 years as members of the National League. They have a dozen 90-win seasons since 2000.

Goldschmidt gets going

What started modestly enough with a deep drive to center field for a sacrifice fly and his 113th RBI of the season could well be a notable box score for Goldschmidt. The Cardinals first baseman and MVP favorite has seen his production slow in September, allowing other hitters, such as Manny Machado and Freddie Freeman, to challenge Goldschmidt’s momentum for his first career National League MVP.

Goldschmidt had been hitting .182 on the road trip, slugging .340 over his previous 27 games. Nothing slakes a swoon quite like a visit to the ballpark formerly known as Miller.

Milwaukee’s home ballpark, now known as American Family Field, hosted Goldschmidt’s three-homer arrival as a Cardinal in 2019 and has been the NL ballpark that has seen him produce the most, with a .660 career slugging percentage and a .321 average in 55 games. He added to those numbers by extending the Cardinals’ lead. Goldschmidt singled and doubled in his final two at-bats. His RBI single in the fifth inning widened the Cardinals’ lead to 5-0 and rewarded the timing at the plate he’s shown in the past week.

Houser leaves game; Cardinals capitalize

After delivering the pitch that gave him a full count against Albert Pujols in the fourth inning, Brewers starter Adrian Houser spun away from the pitching rubber in clear discomfort. The right-hander stretched and winced with what was later diagnosed as a right groin strain, an injury that could complicate the Brewers’ rotation should it reach the playoffs.

Unable to continue, Houser left the Brewers to scramble for the remaining 17 outs.

With three batters, the Cardinals doubled their lead.

Brent Suter’s first pitch to Pujols was a ball, yielding a walk that would go on Houser’s pitching line. Two batters later, Andrew Knizner lofted the first pitch he saw to deep center field. It cleared the wall for his third homer of the season and a two-run shot that sent the Cardinals to a 4-0 lead.

Mikolas sets career high and a season low

With a 93.3 mph fastball past Keston Hiura in the second inning, Mikolas zipped two a new career high for strikeouts in a season. Hiura was Mikolas’ 147th of the season, one more than his previous career high from 2018, his first season with the Cardinals. That season, Mikolas struck out 146 in 200⅔ innings. Mikolas got to 147 this season in his first 195 innings and then quickly added his 148th, 149th, 150th and 151st by the end of the fourth inning Tuesday.

Despite being limited to 44⅔ innings from 2020-2021 due to elbow surgery and recurring soreness, Mikolas set a goal of at least 200 innings entering this season.

He wanted to return to that workload, no training wheels.

Mikolas started Tuesday second in the majors to Miami ace and former Cardinals prospect Sandy Alcantara — the only starter with more than 200 innings as of Monday. Mikolas’ six innings give him 199⅓ after 32 starts. His strikeout total is 153. The Cardinals planned to decide if Mikolas would make a start in the upcoming series against the Pirates and how long that appearance would be based on the standings and his preferences.

In the fifth inning, Mikolas set another personal mark — just on the opposite end of the spectrum. In addition to competing with Adam Wainwright for the most innings on the staff, Mikolas has an ongoing duel with his teammate for the slowest pitch. Mikolas dropped a 60.2 mph curve for a ball to Garrett Mitchell. Though the at-bat ended in a double for Mitchell, Mikolas left it with the slowest pitch thrown in the majors by a pitcher so far this season.

Wainwright has one start left to challenge.

In the eighth inning, Cardinals closer Helsley unleashed a fastball at 104.2 mph for a ground out. That meant Tuesday’s game had the fastest and slowest pitch thrown in the majors this season.

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