"This team has got to stand on its own merit," said Cubs manager Lou Piniella.
Fair enough. For now, they'll gladly take a spot in the playoffs again after beating the St. Louis Cardinals 5-4 Saturday at Wrigley Field to clinch the National League Central for the second straight year.
The win secured Chicago's third playoff berth in the past six seasons. The Cardinals and Atlanta Braves are the only other National League clubs to have reached the post-season that many times since 2003.
Ted Lilly was at the forefront Saturday, notching his career-best 16th victory – a fitting outcome for the pitcher that time and again stepped up following Cubs losses this season.
The result was a new magic number for the Cubs: 11.
"We want the same thing that everybody wants," Piniella said. "We probably want it more so."
A crowd of 41,597 witnessed first-hand Saturday's playoff-clincher and a postgame celebration – broadcast nationally by FOX – that saw players swarm the field after the game's final out.
The Cubs donned t-shirts commemorating their most recent division title, while Chicago's coaches and players – from those that have been with the club since opening day to those who only recently joined up in September – doused the fans and each other with champagne.
"I kept telling people this was better than Triple-A," said rookie right-hander Randy Wells, a September call-up. "I kept spraying champagne on guys that I played with this year at Iowa. I had the time of my life."
The Cubs spent most all season in first-place, never trailing in the division after May 11. They seemed to always step up against division foes Milwaukee and St. Louis, winning a pair of hard-fought series on the road at Busch Stadium, and sweeping the Brewers in what proved to be a critical four-game series at Miller Park in late July that set the tone for the remainder of the season.
The club received contributions from the usual posse: left fielder and leadoff man Alfonso Soriano, third baseman Aramis Ramirez, first baseman Derrek Lee and staff ace Carlos Zambrano, but also a few surprises.
The Cubs made key additions via trades and signings like veteran outfielder Jim Edmonds, who gave them an adequate left-handed bat, and pitchers Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin, who strengthened the starting rotation and bullpen.
But as with most first-place clubs, the Cubs also took their lumps.
Soriano missed over a month with a broken hand; ace setup man Marmol got into a mysterious mid-season funk; Ramirez had one of the worst hitting slumps of his Cubs career; Wood went on the disabled list; Kosuke Fukudome began a second-half drop-off and Zambrano and Harden began ailing late in the season.
Yet those anticipating the Cubs to collapse were either deeply relieved or sorely disappointed, depending on who you ask.
The tiresome "because they're the Cubs" expression never seemed to fly with Piniella, whose team somehow always managed to find a way to remove themselves from prolonged losing skids. They persevered through what could have been detrimental series sweeps against interleague opponents Tampa Bay and the White Sox, as well as a rough start to September.
Now they can breathe easy … sort of.
Piniella said that just because the Cubs have clinched a playoff spot doesn't mean they should take their foot off the pedal. He noted that the Cubs (93-60) still have to get their work done to clinch home field advantage throughout the NL playoffs.
Who the Cubs will play in the first-round of the post-season is still up in the air, but it is likely to be the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets, or Los Angeles Dodgers.
Piniella cautioned fans to "let it go as far as it can," and thanked them for their support this season. The Cubs announced prior to Saturday's game that they had set another single season attendance record with 3,259,649 fans through 80 games.
"These are fantastic fans here at Wrigley as everybody knows," Piniella told Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal after the game. "This organization has gone to the postseason now two years in a row for the first time in I don't know how long.
"They played hard all year," he said of his team. "It's been a difficult summer for us and these guys deserve what they got (Saturday). They played their hearts out. They played good baseball."