MILWAUKEE — As he gleefully scampered from getting doused with carbonated adult beverages to doing the effervescent dousing late Tuesday night there was something missing from Nolan Arenado’s clubhouse celebration gear. He had his first MLB-issued division championship shirt (soaked) and his first MLB-issued division championship hat (backward), but he sported no goggles in sight.
This was not a sign of inexperience.
Their absence was his choice.
“There’s something about the burn,” said Arenado, his eyes stinging from the Champagne and beer sprayed into them. “It hurts, but it feels so good at the same time. It’s like a regular season, man, it hurts so good. It hurts and there are moments when it’s really bad and then there are times it’s really good. And right now, it’s great.”
When he wasn’t being chased by Lars Nootbaar or interviewed by Lars Nootbaar or posing with photos with Albert Pujols, Arenado stepped back to soak in something he had never experienced before.
Nine Gold Glove awards, seven All-Star Games, four Silver Slugger Awards, 299 home runs, and 1,380 games as the most decorated third baseman of his generation, and on a late September night in Milwaukee Arenado finally quenched a thirst with a career first:
A division crown.
“We got him for that reason,” starter Miles Mikolas said. “And however many more years he’s going to be here and we’re all going to be here, that’s how many divisions we’re going to win.”
“Such a good player for so long,” catcher Andrew Knizner said. “And now he’s like a 13-year-old.”
The Cardinals secured the National League Central title with a 6-2 victory against the second-place Brewers. By winning the season series, the Cardinals hold the tiebreaker, take the division, and will enter the National League playoffs as the third seed. They’ll host a first-round best-of-three at Busch Stadium. It is the Cardinals’ 13th NL Central title outright or shared since the advent of this division — more than the other four remaining teams in the division have won, combined.
What’s old habit in St. Louis is new ground for Arenado. For the past two months, Arenado often mentioned playing eight years in Colorado and nearly 10 seasons without a division title, how it’s “what he came here to do.” That burn now subsided.
After a subdued celebration around the mound at American Family Field and a team photo, the Cardinals filed into the clubhouse to let the wild rumpus begin. Nootbaar may have poured beer down a teammates shorts, or two. Using Paul Goldschmidt as an unknowing decoy, manager Oliver Marmol did what others failed in previous attempts — pour a beer on John Mozeliak’s head. Several players called bench coach Skip Schumaker on FaceTime so he could share in the celebration while back in California to help his father through a health concern. Adam Wainwright, still pitching, poured beer on Randy Flores, now an executive, like it was 2006 again and they were kings in Queens.
Nootbaar shouted at Yadier Molina that he was “too dry, too dry, too dry” and then remedied that condition.
But before all of that, Marmol spoke to the team about how a season defined by historic individual accomplishments had achieved their first goal – a team accomplishment.
He then turned the floor and first cork pop over to Pujols.
“Our main mission in spring training was to try to win the division, and here we are,” Pujols said a few minutes after addressing the team. “That is just one step that we’ve taken to climb a bigger ladder.”
He then rushed to be showered in suds by teammates.
“It’s all about winning. That’s it,” Arenado said, standing near the spot Pujols was swamped. “That’s it. From the trade deadline, getting those guys. Our leaders – Albert, Yadi, Waino – we talk about winning ballgames, and that’s all they talk about. If those guys are talking about that with all of the things they’ve accomplished already that’s a sign that shows you that this is what it’s all about. This is what it’s all about here.”
“This is a feel-good moment,” Mozeliak said. “But it’s a moment. We expect more.”
At a team dinner Monday night in Milwaukee, several players, including veterans, got up to speak to the team. When it was his turn, Wainwright mentioned what was missing from Arenado’s career. Here he was with the first decade chocked with Hall of Fame-caliber numbres, all glistening with gold and platinum, and yet no division title. His previous postseason appearances, including 2021 with the Cardinals, had all been wild-card berths.
Wainwright said he wanted to stress how some players go their whole careers without contending like the Cardinals do annually and how they should “not take this for granted.”
Better to have the choice to wear goggles than never need them at all.
At the dinner he concluded: “We’ve got a chance to do that tomorrow.”
As they did in August to Milwaukee in the standings, they did Tuesday to Milwaukee on the scoreboard — wasted little time asserting control. Rookie Brendan Donovan led off the game with his hardest base hit of the season. After that double, Donovan took third on a groundout and scored on Goldschmidt’s sacrifice fly. The Cardinals doubled that lead when Dylan Carlson doubled and scored on a wild pitch in the second inning. And they doubled it again with Knizner’s two-run homer.
The Cardinals had a four-run lead before starter Mikolas allowed a hit and a six-run lead before Mikolas allowed a run. That was the only run against him while he struck out nine in six innings that underscored his bid to start Game 1 of the first-round series.
“We knew what was at stake today,” Marmol said. “We wanted to end it tonight.”
“I definitely thought that was important,” Goldschmidt said. “Sometimes you can come from behind and stuff, but I definitely think getting that run in the first, Donnie and the leadoff double, then scoring. Miles putting up four or five zeroes. Kniz had a big homer. We added on, played well, took advantage and that’s what it’s going to take.”
In their first chance to win the division, head to head, against the Brewers, the Cardinals got a double on the fifth pitch of the game.
When Brewers starter Adrian Houser left suddenly with a right groin strain, his replacement was greeted two batters later by Knizner’s home run.
It was the trade deadline and the season writ small.
The Brewers blinked.
“It’s a blast, but it’s cold and I’m freezing,” Donovan said, his clothes soggy with celebration. “Lars is just popping up out of nowhere just dumping stuff on my head.”
Earlier Tuesday, Schumaker sent out a text to a group of players urging them all not to wear goggles to protect the eyes from Champagne if they won.
“Feel the burn,” he wrote.
Wainwright said he may have called it “the best burn ever.”
Wainwright forwarded the text from their bench coach to the entire team. But then he made sure everyone understood Schumaker’s point. Wainwright went around the clubhouse during the celebration and reminded a couple of the rookies to take the goggles off.
“Feel this,” he encouraged them.
Nootbaar had goggles propped on his hat and when asked by a reporter how he got away with wearing them, the outfielder quickly pointed out how “they’re not over my eyes. It’s a fashion statement to have them on the hat.”
Arenado didn’t even bother with goggles as a prop or flair.
His hair soaked, his eyes red, his teammate Nootbaar asking him whether he’d trade all of his 30 homers this season for one opposite-field blast like Knizner’s, and Arenado was never tempted to tug on a pair of goggles to avoid that sticky, eye-watering, bubbly burn.
Having caught one of the few things that’s escaped his reach, only through the sting could he really clearly see it.
“I’ve never done this. Never done this. It’s an amazing feeling,” Arenado said. “It burns so, so good. It burns better.”
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