PITTSBURGH — The celebration has become a fall ritual for the St. Louis Cardinals. The champagne showers. The rowdy sing-alongs. The giddy clubhouse joy.
Yet it doesn't get old. Not for this group. Not after an emotionally draining season in which they somehow powered themselves to a third straight NL Central title, the clincher coming in an 11-1 dispatching of Pittsburgh in the second game of a doubleheader on Wednesday night that served as an exclamation point on a year unlike any other.
"Tell me another team that is going to lose their ace and their three-hole hitter and is going to win 100 games?" third baseman Matt Carpenter said, his eyes dripping with celebratory booze. "It's just not going to happen and we found a way to do it."
Jason Heyward's third-inning grand slam led the way and Tyler Lyons (3-1) did the rest, shutting down the Pirates for seven innings in a spot start that exemplified the attitude the Cardinals have adopted during a turbulent summer in which they somehow grew stronger even as their stars went down.
"Obviously we have bigger plans," said Lyons, who has bounced between the rotation and the bullpen all year. "This is exciting and hopefully we can ride this out for a little while longer."
The Cardinals can ease up for a week while the finish the regular season in Atlanta and await the winner of next Wednesday's wild-card game between the Pirates and the Cubs. St. Louis will host Game 1 of the NL Division Series on Oct. 9 as it chases the franchise's third title in a decade.
It's a race the Cardinals believe they're ready for. Considering what they've dealt with over the last 12 months, they'll hardly be an easy out.
St. Louis bounced back emotionally after promising outfielder Oscar Taveras was killed in a car accident last October. The Cardinals took over sole possession of first on April 17 and held on in a season when No. 1 starter Adam Wainwright, sluggers Matt Holliday and Matt Adams and high-profile relievers Jordan Walden and Matt Belisle spent large chunks of the season on the disabled list.
"It seemed like no matter what happened, this team never quit," Carpenter said.
The way the relentless Pirates and surging Cubs kept coming, St. Louis really didn't have a choice.
"This was one of those seasons where guys feel it and when they push through it and are able to come out on top," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "This has a lot more meaning than what it looks like at face value."
Wainwright returned from a torn left Achilles to pitch one inning of mop-up duty during an 8-2 loss in the opener, his astounding recovery four months ahead of schedule. Even Pirates manager Clint Hurdle applauded when Wainwright raced in from the bullpen in the eighth inning.
The smile was gone a few hours later as the Cardinals whooped it up a few hundred feet away in the visiting clubhouse. Pittsburgh has 277 wins since the start of 2013, the second-best record in the majors over that stretch. The Pirates also have zero division titles. Why? Because the Cardinals have 287 wins over the same span.
"We've still got to stay focused on right where we are," Hurdle said. "They won their 100th game tonight. We've got 96. Separation is what it is. The ultimate goal hasn't changed, to win a world championship. We're just going to have go about it in a different method now."
The Pirates missed a chance to inject some real drama into the final week of the regular season when they left 16 runners on base in a 3-0 loss on Monday night. Though Gerrit Cole threw seven strong innings in the opener on Wednesday to briefly pull the Pirates within three games, the Cardinals wasted little time getting to Charlie Morton (9-9), just like always.
Morton came in winless against St. Louis since April 4, 2011, a span of 11 starts. Tasked with forcing the Cardinals to wrap up the division in Atlanta on Friday, Morton faltered one again.
Carpenter led off the game with a triple to the gap in left-center, with normally sure handed Pittsburgh outfielders Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen letting the ball scoot between them. Carpenter scored on a double play, Heyward singled and then scored on a double by Adams.
Morton temporarily gathered himself only to unravel completely in the third. Carpenter doubled, Morton hit Jon Jay with a pitch and walked Jhonny Peralta. Reliever Bobby LaFromboise came in for Morton only to watch Heyward send his fourth pitch streaking into the seats in right-center to make it 6-0 and send the attendants in the visiting clubhouse at PNC Park scrambling to prepare for a party.
"It's the first step," said Heyward, acquired in an offseason trade from Atlanta. "We've still got a lot to get done."
Cardinals: Made room for Wainwright by placing RHP Carlos Martinez on the 60-day disabled list with a strained right shoulder.
Pirates: C Francisco Cervelli was treated between games by trainers after taking a foul ball off his left ear in the opener. He remained in the game and started the nightcap, a rarity for a catcher.
Cardinals: St. Louis wraps up the year with a three-game set with the Braves in Atlanta starting Friday when Jaime Garcia (10-5, 2.36 ERA) faces Julio Tehran (10-8, 4.16).
Pirates: Host Cincinnati on Friday looking to secure homefield advantage for the wild-card. Francisco Liriano (12-7, 3.27 ERA) will look for his 10th win in his last 11 decisions.