Cubs celebrate first NL Central title in 8 years

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CHICAGO (AP) — Carl Edwards Jr. pulled a "W'' flag over his shoulders and danced in the middle of the clubhouse. Ben Zobrist wiggled from side to side as ice cubes tumbled down his back to the drenched floor. David Ross closed his eyes as a bottle of beer was poured over his head.

The Chicago Cubs had to wait until Friday to celebrate their NL Central title, but they quickly made up for lost time.

Moments after Miguel Montero's 10th-inning homer lifted Chicago to a 5-4 victory over Milwaukee, the Cubs pulled on postseason hats and shirts and then partied all over Wrigley Field. It began with pictures and hugs all over the infield, and then transitioned to a boozy segment in their plush clubhouse before returning to the field to wave to their delirious fans and pose for more pictures with family and friends.

"We enjoy each other and we have fun together," Zobrist said, "and that's (what) makes this kind of situation fun. Even if it's just a regular win on a regular day, we still enjoy each other and we have fun for about a half-hour and then we're done. But this one will last a little bit longer than that."

The Cubs became the first major league team to clinch their division when St. Louis lost at San Francisco late Thursday night. They had a chance to wrap it up on the field, but Scooter Gennett's tiebreaking two-run double in the seventh lifted Milwaukee to a 5-4 win earlier in the night.

Manager Joe Maddon and the players were long gone from Wrigley by the time the Giants finished off the Cardinals. But they were clearly ready to go on Friday.

A DJ played thumping dance music as the players and coaches sprayed each other with beer and champagne. It was mostly quiet for a short time while owner Tom Ricketts toasted baseball executives Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, and then the party was on once again.

"It's always great to go to October," Epstein said. "But to go in with a group of guys that you really believe in and that are committed and connected and understand what's at stake and want so badly to make it happen is great. I wouldn't trade our 25 for anyone else's."

Epstein, Hoyer and several other members of Chicago's front office watched most of the game from the famed bleachers, and Epstein wore a comically fake mustache for the occasion.

"We made a deal with the guys that we'd go out there the day after we won the division," a grinning Epstein said, "and then in case something went really wrong in the game I thought it might be good to be disguised out there. Then I kind of didn't plan ahead, so last-minute, that's what the costume store had.

"Whatever. I was half-committed to it, but who cares? It was fun. We had a good time."

The division had seemed like a foregone conclusion ever since Chicago got off to a 25-6 start, serving notice that all the preseason hype was justified. Led by MVP candidates Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo and a ridiculously deep pitching staff, the Cubs are on top of the majors with a 94-53 record.

It is 108 years since Chicago last won the World Series in 1908, a drought the Cubs hope to end this year. But in the meantime, they weren't taking the NL Central title for granted.

"Winning your division, that's a highlight," Maddon said. "It's always a highlight. Being able to avoid a wild-card game ... you really want to avoid that if you possibly can."

Chicago beat Pittsburgh in the wild-card game a year ago, and then eliminated St. Louis before it was swept by the New York Mets in the NL Championship Series. The Cubs had to wait until Sept. 25 to clinch their 2015 postseason spot, and that also was via a loss by another contender.

This time around, Chicago is into the playoffs with a couple weeks to spare. It is still hoping for home-field advantage throughout the NL postseason, but clinching the division so early gives Maddon plenty of time to rest some position players and take care of his pitching staff.

"Now we have this opportunity to plan it out, slowly, really try to make some intelligent decisions while we're still playing the same game with the same kind of intensity," Maddon said. "That's what we're looking for."

Most of Chicago's regulars were out of the lineup for the Friday afternoon start, and Maddon said he planned to wait until Saturday for more in-depth discussions with his coaching staff about their plans for the rest of the regular season — clearing the way for what they hope will be the first of several parties this year.

"It's exciting," Ross said. "Winning the division is pretty cool and you know a rare treat. I think we've seen this coming for a while now, but it's nice to have that finally in the books."