An afterthought in early September, the St. Louis Cardinals are taking their wild ride all the way to the World Series.
David Freese hit a three-run homer in the first and manager Tony La Russa turned again to his brilliant bullpen for seven sturdy innings as St. Louis captured its 18th pennant with a 12-6 victory over the bumbling Milwaukee Brewers on Sunday night.
Albert Pujols and the wild-card Cardinals took out the heavily favored Phillies in the first round, then dispatched the division-rival Brewers on their own turf in Game 6 of the NL championship series.
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Looking for its second title in six seasons, St. Louis opens the World Series at home Wednesday night with ace Chris Carpenter on the mound against the AL champion Texas Rangers.
"I mean, you could have never known," Pujols said.
Trailing by 10½ games in the wild-card race on Aug. 25, the Cardinals surged down the stretch and took advantage of a monumental collapse by Atlanta to win a playoff spot on the final night of the regular season.
Now, bolstered by a group of no-name relievers who keep answering La Russa's call, the Cardinals are back in the World Series for the first time since beating Detroit in 2006.
What a relief!
"Well, it was crazy," outfielder Matt Holliday said. "We had a lot of adversity, but we found a way."
It was a disappointing end to a scintillating season for Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun and the NL Central champion Brewers, who finished with a franchise-record 96 wins, six games ahead of St. Louis.
Baseball's best home team collapsed in the NLCS, though, losing twice at Miller Park in an error-filled flop. It was likely Fielder's final game with the Brewers, too. He can become a free agent after the season.
Rafael Furcal and Pujols hit solo homers off Chris Narveson and St. Louis built a 9-4 lead by the time the bullpen took over for Edwin Jackson in the third inning.
The group of Fernando Salas, Marc Rzepczynski, Octavio Dotel, Lance Lynn and Jason Motte allowed two runs the rest of the way. For the series, St. Louis relievers finished 3-0 with a 1.88 ERA over 28 2-3 innings.
The biggest scare came when Pujols appeared shaken up after tagging out Braun in the fifth inning when he fell hard on his right forearm on a close play at first base. The three-time MVP was slow to get up, but stayed in the game.
St. Louis went 15-5 over the final 20 games to clinch a playoff spot on the final day of the regular season. The Cardinals needed Carpenter to throw a shutout to beat the Phillies 1-0 in Game 5 of the NLDS, but took control of this series beginning in Game 2 by jumping out to early leads and letting their bullpen lead the way.
La Russa called on his relievers 28 times in the NLCS and Jackson's start was the shortest of the postseason for the Cardinals rotation, which finished the NLCS with a 7.66 ERA. St. Louis became the first team to win a postseason series without a starter reaching the sixth inning, according to STATS LLC.
Picked as the NLCS MVP, Freese gave others credit.
"I wish we could make eight or nine of these and give them to our bullpen. They're the reason why we won this series," he said.
Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks and Jonathan Lucroy all homered for the Brewers, who won a major league-most 57 times at Miller Park this season and four straight in the postseason before losing Game 2 to the Cardinals.
It was the two ugly defensive performances that will likely linger for Milwaukee, which committed four errors in a 7-1 loss in Game 5 and added three more in Game 6.
"You can't get away with mistakes to them and we made way too many mistakes," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said.
The Brewers' biggest hitters — Braun, Fielder and Weeks — finished 1 for 12. Fielder, the All-Star game MVP and the reason St. Louis will start at home on Wednesday, received a standing ovation in his final at-bat in the eighth. He grounded out and slowly walked back to the dugout with his head down.
Struggling starter Shaun Marcum never really gave Milwaukee a chance and was hurt by defensive plays that weren't ruled errors.
In the first, Jon Jay singled with one out and stole second when Weeks couldn't hold onto Lucroy's throw. Marcum believed he had strike three on Pujols, who ended up walking.
Lance Berkman singled for the second time in 18 career at-bats against Marcum to drive in the first run, and center fielder Nyjer Morgan made an ill-advised throw to third, with Pujols moving from first to third, that let Berkman advance.
Marcum saved a run by grabbing Matt Holliday's grounder and flipping it out of his glove to Lucroy to get Pujols at the plate, but Freese homered on the next pitch to make it 4-0 and extend his postseason hitting streak to 10 games.
Marcum finished the first, ending his postseason 0-3 with a 14.90 ERA.
Furcal homered off Chris Narveson with two outs in the second and Pujols followed with a drive to left field to give St. Louis a 6-4 lead.
Holliday then singled, Freese doubled and the Brewers intentionally walked Yadier Molina with one out. Nick Punto hit a sacrifice fly and pinch-hitter Allen Craig singled in two more runs off LaTroy Hawkins to make it 9-4.
Yuniesky Betancourt's RBI double in the fourth cut the lead to 9-5, but Milwaukee fell apart in the fifth with three errors in a span of two plays.
First, Hart bobbled Freese's single in right field, allowing Holliday to reach third.
Holliday scored on the next play when third baseman Jerry Hairston Jr. committed two errors. First, he booted Molina's grounder and then flipped the ball out of his glove through Weeks' legs at second.
Pinch-hitter Adron Chambers' sacrifice fly gave St. Louis an 11-5 lead in the fifth. In the bottom of the inning, Braun's groundout cut the lead to 11-6, but the focus was on Pujols when he was slow to get up.
La Russa came out to check on his star, who gripped his right forearm and had a brief limp, but stayed in the game. He looked better, contributing a two-out RBI single in the eighth for the final margin.
Jackson allowed Hart and Weeks to lead off the first two innings with homers and Lucroy added a two-run shot to cut the lead to 5-4 after the second. St. Louis answered back with four more runs, keyed when Jackson was pulled for Craig, who delivered the two-run single.
Salas caught a break in the third when Jay made a leaping catch of Fielder's drive at the wall in right-center. Jay added another spectacular grab, crashing into the padding in the ninth with Motte on the mound.
One out later, the celebration was on.