ST. LOUIS — It had to be the Cardinals. It had to be here.
And it almost had to be right-hander John Lackey pitching for the Cubs and beating the Cardinals 5-1 on Wednesday in the kind of division clincher that figures to stick longer in their memories than most.
The result enabled the Cubs to clinch their second consecutive National League Central title and their third postseason berth in a row for the first time since 1906-08.
‘‘They’ve been the benchmark for a long time,’’ said first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who more than three years ago was the first to publicly warn the Cardinals that the Cubs were coming for them. ‘‘The standard that’s set here is so high that it’s pretty much the division, the World Series every year or bust.
‘‘That’s hard to do, and they’ve done that. And we’ve created a culture here now that’s kind of win or bust. That’s a good feeling. It’s a long way from ’12. It’s a long way from ’13 and ’14.’’
Or even 2015. Lackey is the last pitcher to win a playoff game for the Cardinals, a franchise with the 11 World Series titles. That was in Game 1 of the ’15 NL Division Series against the Cubs. He then joined the Cubs that offseason.
On Wednesday at Busch Stadium, he became the first pitcher since Charlie Root in 1938 to clinch a Cubs championship in St. Louis.
More often the nail than the hammer in this rivalry in the last century, the Cubs batted around in the seventh inning against
Michael Wacha for all five of their runs, sending most of their players leaping in the air, sending reliever Carl Edwards Jr. running around the field with a ‘‘W’’ flag and sending them on their way to an NLDS matchup against the Nationals.
It was what reigning World Series MVP Ben Zobrist envisioned when he said Sunday, ‘‘We intend to clinch here.’’
‘‘I would have said that no matter where we were going, but I do think it’s extra-special to be able to do it here for a lot of Cubs fans who, for a long, long time, haven’t experienced a lot of winning in this particular city,’’ Zobrist said amid the champagne-soaked clubhouse. ‘‘For those guys that have been in the organization for a long time, too, I know it means a little more.’’
Three postseasons in a row? The Cubs had made three playoff appearances in the previous 16 years combined.
They did it this season as tired, hungover favorites who stumbled into the All-Star break two games below .500 and as defending champions who overcame injuries, underachievement, fatigue and occasional off-field issues to storm out of the break and ride the best second-half record in the NL to a playoff berth.
‘‘You can’t say it’s harder than we thought because we never thought it would be easy,’’ said right fielder Jason Heyward, an ex-Cardinal who had a run-scoring double in the big rally.
‘‘The post-World Series effect is real, if you look at what teams have done,’’ said team president Theo Epstein, who won two World Series as the Red Sox’ general manager before building the Cubs’ title team last season. ‘‘That’s nothing to be ashamed of. But I think there’s always an opportunity to focus and elevate the caliber of play at a really important time, and our guys have absolutely done that.’’
The Cubs are 46-24 (.657) since entering the break 43-45 and 5½ games behind the Brewers. One more victory would give them 90, an unthinkable number in early July.
‘‘Certain years are tougher than others,’’ said Epstein, whose 2016 team won 103 games in the regular season. ‘‘And dealing with success is not easy. And it’s been a long road.
‘‘This is what we’ve felt our guys’ identity is, and it’s great to see it manifest at the most important time.’’
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