ST. LOUIS -- The Chicago Cubs left their scent at Busch Stadium, and that scent was the sweet smell of champagne.
After struggling to come up with much of anything all night Wednesday against St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Michael Wacha, the Cubs went into quick-strike mode in the seventh inning, scoring 5 runs, with 3 coming on a home run by Addison Russell.
The rout was on. And so was the party.
The eventual 5-1 victory at Busch Stadium gave the Cubs their second straight National League Central title and their third postseason berth in the last three years, and they will open up against the Washington Nationals in the NLCS. The previous time the Cubs went to the postseason three straight years was 1906-08.
The Cubs will enter the postseason as defending world champions, and they'll do so after a start-and-stop regular season that finally came together at the right time: in September.
Inside the visitors' clubhouse, there were two main themes: The Cubs paid tribute to starting and winning pitcher John Lackey by chanting, "Lackey, Lackey, Lackey."
The also chanted, "Eleven more, eleven more," as in the 11 victories it will take in the postseason for the Cubs to repeat as world champions.
Lackey, the Cubs' ornery old warhorse, pitched 6 innings of 2-hit, 1-run ball. He gave up both hits and the run in the second but held the Cardinals at bay until the offense exploded in the seventh.
Lackey's longtime friend, pitcher Jon Lester, saluted him during postgame speech.
"I've had the pleasure to call this guy a teammate for 11 years," Lester said. "I've learned a lot about this game from this guy, and I'm sure you guys have, too. He's one of the best teammates and one of the best people I've ever got to play with. Tonight was probably his last regular-season start. Here's to one (heck) of a career."
Lackey would shed no light on retirement talk, saying only, "Let me enjoy my night."
But he also flashed the familiar pride by saying he didn't want to come out of the game after throwing 82 pitches over the 6 inning. But manager Joe Maddon went to pinch hitter Tommy La Stella in the 5-run seventh, when the Cubs sent 10 to the plate.
"A lot of things to think about tonight," he said. "Honestly, there was no way I should have gotten taken out of that game. I was feelin' it tonight."
Maddon wasn't surprised to be apprised of that.
"Of course he did," Maddon said of Lackey wanting to stay in. "Tommy told me he wanted to pinch hit there, so we did that. There's no other way to do that, because you want to keep adding on runs."
The fateful seventh began with singles by Anthony Rizzo and Ben Zobrist, setting the stage for Russell's 12th homer of the year, a drive down the left-field line off Wacha. Doubles by Jason Heyward and La Stella made it 5-1.
"Awesome, it feels awesome," said Russell, who has battled back from a foot injury. "I'm just looking for something over the plate. Just trying not to do too much. He had been giving me change-ups all night. He left that one up. I was able to do a little damage."
A World Series hero a year ago, Russell said this hard-fought division title feels satisfying.
"We started out with a goal in spring training, and we've hit that goal every single day," he said. "I feel like we're playing our best baseball right now. I would say in the clubhouse it (playoff baseball) is starting to become kind of the norm.
"We're used to this stuff. We know there's a tough road ahead. We know what we have to do as a team. I believe we're all looking forward to it. But tonight we're going to have some fun."
In a corner of the champagne-soaked clubhouse, the architect, team president Theo Epstein, weighed in on a season that saw the Cubs rally from being 43-45 at the all-star break and 5½ games ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers to 89-69 today.
"The last few weeks is probably the best we played all year," Epstein said. "Look, it was crunch time early this year. Two games under, 5½ out at the all-star break.
"If we had had a bad road trip and a bad homestand to start the second half, we're selling. We didn't. We started playing pretty good baseball off the bat. We added. Our guys elevated their level of play, had a (heck) of a second half and a great closing kick the last few weeks.
"Now we're going into the playoffs with as much momentum as anybody."