ST. LOUIS – When they'd put it to Clayton Kershaw and exposed Yasiel Puig and returned the Los Angeles Dodgers' resurgence to L.A., their 19th World Series appearance five days away, the St. Louis Cardinals toasted their baseball children, along with the system that birthed them. They doused the late-October regulars, those who'd resisted the predictions of tectonic organizational shifts when the iconic manager and the superstar left them on a night two years ago not so different from this. And they stole a glance at Carlos Beltran, a relative newcomer to them, but a lifer in deed and spirit who'd never been to a party quite like this.
The Cardinals are special. More, perhaps, they think they're special. That covers a lot of ground, and covers the unavoidable inadequacies that come with getting nine men – 25 men, even – on a ball field in a spritzing rain in late October against another good ball club that believes it is special, too. It's just baseball, just that, but it's more than that in the moment, when the moment lasts seven months, and it's great and it's terrible and it's hard and then everybody's in a big, bright, rectangular room hugging.
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In six games, the last by a 9-0 score Friday night that was every bit what that may look like, the Cardinals finished the Dodgers in the National League championship series. They await the Boston Red Sox or Detroit Tigers and a World Series they'll start on the road, a minor inconvenience.
In the end, and in a way that so symbolizes who the Cardinals are, the winning pitcher and Most Valuable Player was Michael Wacha, 22 years old, 16 months out of Texas A&M, 18 games into his big-league career. And the sentimental favorite was Beltran, 36 years old, 18 ½ years out of Fernando Callejo High School in Manati, Puerto Rico, and 2,099 games into his big-league career. Both on Wednesday night will feel the World Series for the first time.
Tony La Russa, who retired after the club's 2011 championship, has a job with the league on Park Avenue in New York. Albert Pujols, who left as a free agent, works for the Los Angeles Angels on Gene Autry Way in Anaheim. And yet these Cardinals, a year after running aground in an NLCS they probably should have won, return on the backs of a cluster of familiar Cardinals, and the products of a farm system that does things better, and a man such as Beltran, who simply plays the game, and a manager – Mike Matheny – who leads them firmly.
Everybody, of course, looks better soaked in Champagne. Everybody sounds better over the thump-thump-thump of party music. The Cardinals always seem to look and sound like this. They're going to their fourth World Series in a decade, their second in three seasons, their first since 1987 without La Russa and Pujols. If it's cold and rainy at Busch Stadium, and nobody's in the ballpark, it's probably because they're waiting on the next big game. So it was as the celebration ran into Saturday morning, and grown men fell into each other's arms. They'd scored seven runs in a little more than four innings against Kershaw, the best pitcher in baseball, the second-best starter on this night.
Matt Carpenter started the demolition in the third inning with an 11-pitch at-bat that ended with a double into the right-field corner. Beltran drove him home with a single. It was all Wacha and the Cardinals would require, but they'd send 10 men to the plate in Kershaw's 48-pitch third inning. Then the first three reached against Kershaw in the fifth inning. It had been 3 ½ years since he'd lasted four or fewer innings and given up at least seven runs. Against Wacha, who pitched seven innings, Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal, the Dodgers countered with two hits, those separated by 15 batters.
"I didn't have it tonight," Kershaw said.
After the better part of 49 hours spent separating the way baseball is supposed to be played from the way Puig plays it, and trying not to laugh at Adrian Gonzalez's mouse ears, and in an earnest national anthem standoff (Scott Van Slyke vs. Joe Kelly) that both befuddled and amused America, the Cardinals and Dodgers had gotten around to Game 6, which was a nice break from the clatter. Not five innings in, the Cardinals were ahead 9-0, and Kershaw was on the bench with his chin on his hand, and Wacha was throwing power strikes, and the people who filled the ballpark were plotting which downtown bars to fill.
Now they could bring back Allen Craig, down with an ankle injury but healing. And they'll have time to set up their pitching rotation. For the Pittsburgh Pirates weren't quite up to it, and the Dodgers weren't quite ready, which left the Cardinals with Budweisers in their hands, and the kinds of smiles left for late October.
"I feel like a winner right now," said Beltran, who'd just finished his eighth career game in which a win would put him in the World Series. He'd lost the previous seven. "We win it or not, I can say I was there."
Seven years ago, as a New York Met against these very Cardinals, it had been he who stood in the batter's box in Game 7 of the NLCS. The bases were loaded. Old Shea Stadium shook. Adam Wainwright, today the Cardinals' ace but then a young relief pitcher, struck out Beltran on a backdoor breaking ball. Beltran hadn't even swung.
Funny where life puts a man. On Friday night, with the World Series right there, he doubled and singled twice. He stood amid the two rallies that would beat the Dodgers and helped make St. Louis go.
He was on the bench when the last out came, strike three to some other guy, and he bolted onto the field.
"I thought about my family, my dad, my mom, my wife and my kids, all the people that have been around me and know how much I wanted to get to this point," Beltran said. "My country. My hometown. So it's a great feeling to be able to come through and to be able to have this opportunity."
This time, the other team would sort through the loss. And go home. And figure out what was next, and how this happened, and why.
Down the hallway, the other general manager was shaking hands, saying thanks, saying good-bye.
"This one I really hate to see end," Ned Colletti said.
They'd had a good time. They'd won a lot of games. The Cardinals, at the end, were better. The Dodgers hung on with Andre Ethier limping and Hanley Ramirez half the player he was just a week ago, before he'd had his rib broken. The Cardinals were down Craig.
"I'll miss these guys," Colletti said. "It's never the same guys. Even if everybody comes back, it's never the same guys. And I'll miss this group."
It ended with Puig standing in the dugout, his arms crossed, staring across the field, as the Cardinals danced. And Don Mattingly, finally having seen enough, turning and leaving through the darkened tunnel. They'd let the Cardinals be, applaud the Cardinals, and watch them go on.
In the home clubhouse, chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. held a bottle of beer. He wore a floppy ball cap that spoke of a National League pennant. He surveyed a clubhouse that was, perhaps, a bit out of hand. He smiled. They're special.
"I'm pretty pleased," he said.