Cards Clinch Central Crown

Jim Edmonds got the St. Louis Cardinals' clinching party off to an early start.

The Cardinals became the first team to earn a playoff spot this season, winning the NL Central on Wednesday night when Edmonds' third-inning grand slam sent them to an 11-6 win over the Houston Astros.

"You get the grand slam to start the game going and you just hope everybody else can follow," Edmonds said. "You don't want it to be close. You want to get it over and relax."

A sellout crowd at Busch Stadium saw the Cardinals win the division title for the first time since 1996, manager Tony La Russa's first year with the team.

Fans were on the 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.

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  • 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."

    Ray Lankford homered the next pitch from Chris Holt after Edmonds' slam, giving the Cardinals a 5-0 cushion. Lankford and Craig Paquette each homered twice as St. Louis won for the eighth time in nine games.

    The Astros, who had three straight NL Central championships, had their five-ame winning streak stopped.

    "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."

    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.

    McGwire, who was on the disabled list for two months and limited to 79 games by a severe case of tendinitis in his right knee, has been reduced to pinch-hit duties since his return Sept. 8. He's 3-for-8 with two homers.

    McGwire was hit by a pitch in the eighth inning. He has said it's extremely doubtful he'll be able to play first base when the playoffs begin in the first week of October it will be his first postseason appearance since 1992 with Oakland.

    Big Mac was at the center of the celebration, roaming the clubhouse in search of teammates to spray with champagne. And he was 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."

    Richard Hidalgo hit his 41st home run for Houston. Jeff Bagwell scored his 147th run, breaking the Astros record set by Craig Biggio in 1997.

    A crowd of 38,653, watching in 59-degree weather, was the 34th sellout of the season for the Cardinals, breaking the team record set in 1988.

    The fans saw St. Louis set and tie several long-ball records. The Cardinals:

    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.

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

    "I thought Chris had pretty good stuff," Astros manager Larry Dierker said. "But every tie he got a pitch up, they whacked it."

    Hidalgo hit his fifth homers 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 major league plate appearance.

    Singles by Mike Matheny, Vina and Paquette loaded the bases with one out in the third.

    Edmonds hit a drive over the right-field wall for his second career grand slam on a 3-2 pitch for the first runs of the game. On the next pitch, Lankford hit his 25th homer.

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

    Notes

  • The Cardinals were a combined 23 games below .500 in the last three years since winning the NL Central in 1996.
  • Edmonds' homer was his 40th by an outfielder, a team record. He has hit one as a first baseman.
  • Roger Cedeno had two hits for Houston. 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.


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