For the 19th time in franchise history, the St. Louis Cardinals have claimed the National League pennant -- an eclectic club carrying that precious banner into the Fall Classic the way Enos Slaughter, Stan Musial, Bob Gibson and Ozzie Smith once did. The focus now shifts toward a potential 12th World Series trophy ringed with pennants.
Wearing a "6" on their sleeve in honor of the late, great Stan the Man, the Cards took Game 6 of the National League Championship Series in a 9-0 landslide. They're headed to the Fall Classic for the fourth time in the last 10 years -- their opponent remains unknown, pending the conclusion of the American League Championship Series this weekend in Boston between the Red Sox and Tigers.
For the Cardinals, this trip comes courtesy of a unique mix of players that includes several veterans, who still felt the pain of last year's near-miss against the Giants, and an amazing array of rookies thrown into the October fire. At the top of that list of rookies: Game 6 winner Michael Wacha, who became the youngest rookie to win a postseason Most Valuable Player Award. At 22, Wacha is a few months younger than Livan Hernandez was in 1997 with the Marlins.
Starting with a one-hitter in his final regular-season start, Wacha has skyrocketed to mound stardom in October -- and the Cardinals hope his work continues.
"We just don't talk about it much because we don't want it to change," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny deadpanned postgame. "We want to see it a few more times, a couple at least. We just want him to think that this is normal and this is expected."
In the new normal, Wacha outdueled Clayton Kershaw once again. Meanwhile, postseason genius Carlos Beltran contributed three hits, two RBIs and one stellar catch in the right-center-field gap. Trevor Rosenthal shoved one last 100 mph fastball down the middle of the plate for strike three and the 27th out.
This will be the first World Series appearance for all three of those players, but Beltran has waited 16 seasons and more than 2,000 regular-season games for it -- not a matter of months like his young teammates.
"This team has been on a mission to get me to this point, and I really appreciate that," Beltran said.
In a postseason powered by pitching, Game 6 went off the script with a superstar starter in Kershaw struggling and crooked numbers lighting up the scoreboard. And it all began with an 11-pitch at-bat in the third for Matt Carpenter, who fouled off six two-strike pitches before lacing a double to right.
"That was such a battle," Carpenter would say afterward. "I know he was as locked in as I was throughout that at bat."
It was clear the battle took its toll on Kershaw, who gave up a single to Beltran for the first run of the game, and the merry-go-round kept going from there.
"You're optimistic coming into this game, hoping to look at a Game 7," Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. "You've got Clayton going, so it's funny how the season, everything you do, comes to a screeching halt."
It was the third time in the last six years the Dodgers have lost the NLCS, the loss extending the franchise drought of missing the World Series to 25 years.
As they head to the game's highest peak, the Cardinals are 2-1 against both the Red Sox and the Tigers in the World Series. They beat the Red Sox in 1946 and '67, losing to them in 2004. They also beat Detroit in 1934 and 2006, losing in 1968.
For now, they're content to wait it out to see which of those two AL clubs they'll face. For now, the 2013 Cardinals can savor bringing another NL pennant to St. Louis.
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The Red Sox won 28 more regular-season games in 2013 than they did the year before, their 97 victories and 53 at home leading the American League. Now, they just need one home win -- that's it.
One win at Fenway, and the Red Sox will be headed to the Fall Classic for the 12th time in franchise history.
But there's the matter of defeating the defending AL champions, a Tigers team that continues to claw and scratch to make it back there, a team that is up against the wall as the two teams prepare for Saturday's Game 6 at 8 p.m. ET on FOX.
"We've got to feel positive," hobbled Tigers star third baseman Miguel Cabrera said. "We've got to feel ready to play. We have been here before, down 3-2, and we don't know what's going to happen. We've got to think we can win Saturday. We've got to fight."
It'll be Max Scherzer taking the mound for Motown, making his third postseason start after a regular season that saw him win a Major League-high 21 games with a career-low 2.90 ERA. It'll be Clay Buchholz, absolutely brilliant during the regular season when healthy, hoping to set the tone for a third Red Sox pennant in 10 years.
With those two pitching and four one-run games out of five thus far -- tying an ALCS record -- chances are this one won't turn into a slugfest, either.
Heading in, the Red Sox are 5-0 all-time in Game 6s at Fenway, including the World Series classic that ended with Carlton Fisk's blast caroming off the foul pole. More to the point, the Sox have been strong all year in their home park, and this is the biggest home game to date.
"It's a mixture of the crowd, it's a mixture of a lot of guys who haven't played here before, they're getting that Boston atmosphere for the first time and are just kind of thriving on it," said catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
Saturday's League Championship Series game
Tigers (RHP Max Scherzer 2-0, 2.25 ERA postseason) at Red Sox (RHP Clay Buchholz, 0-0, 6.17 ERA), 8 p.m. ET (FOX) Preview >
2013 MLB POSTSEASON
Wild Card: Rays 4, Indians 0
Division Series: Red Sox beat Rays, 3-1 | Tigers beat A's, 3-2
Championship Series: Tigers vs. Red Sox, Boston leads, 3-2
Wild Card: Pirates 6, Reds 2
Division Series: Cardinals beat Pirates, 3-2 | Dodgers beat Braves, 3-1
Championship Series: Cardinals beat Dodgers, 4-2
2013 postseason schedule
NL Division Series
Game 1: Cardinals 9, Pirates 1
Game 2: Pirates 7, Cardinals 1
Game 3: Pirates 5, Cardinals 3
Game 4: Cardinals 2, Pirates 1
Game 5: Cardinals 6, Pirates 1, Cardinals win series, 3-2
Game 1: Dodgers 6, Braves 1
Game 2: Braves 4, Dodgers 3
Game 3: Dodgers 13, Braves 6
Game 4: Dodgers 4, Braves 3, Dodgers win series, 3-1
AL Division Series
Game 1: Red Sox 12, Rays 2
Game 2: Red Sox 7, Rays 4
Game 3: Rays 5, Red Sox 4
Game 4: Red Sox 3, Rays 1, Red Sox win series, 3-1
Game 1: Tigers 3, A's 2
Game 2: A's 1, Tigers 0
Game 3: A's 6, Tigers 3
Game 4: Tigers 8, A's 6
Game 5: Tigers 3, A's 0, Tigers win series, 3-2
NL Championship Series
Game 1: Cardinals 3, Dodgers 2 (13 innings)
Game 2: Cardinals 1, Dodgers 0
Game 3: Dodgers 3, Cardinals 0
Game 4: Cardinals 4, Dodgers 2
Game 5: Dodgers 6, Cardinals 4
Game 6: Cardinals 9, Dodgers 0, St. Louis wins series, 4-2
AL Championship Series (All games on FOX)
Game 1: Tigers 1, Red Sox 0
Game 2: Red Sox 6, Tigers 5
Game 3: Red Sox 1, Tigers 0
Game 4: Tigers 7, Red Sox 3
Game 5: Red Sox 4, Tigers 3, Boston leads series, 3-2
Game 6: Tigers at Red Sox, Saturday, 8 p.m. ET
*Game 7: Tigers at Red Sox, Sunday, 8 p.m. ET
* - if necessary
Game 1: Cardinals at AL champion, Wednesday, airtime 7:30 p.m. ET, game 8:07, FOX
Game 2: Cardinals at AL champion, Thursday, airtime 7:30 p.m. ET, game 8:07, FOX
Game 3: AL champion at Cardinals, Oct. 26, airtime 7:30 p.m. ET, game 8:07, FOX
Game 4: AL champion at Cardinals, Oct. 27, airtime 8 p.m. ET, game 8:15, FOX
*Game 5: AL champion at Cardinals, Oct. 28, airtime 7:30 p.m. ET, game 8:07, FOX
*Game 6: Cardinals at AL champion, Oct. 30, airtime 7:30 p.m. ET, game 8:07, FOX
*Game 7: Cardinals at AL champion, Oct. 31, airtime 7:30 p.m. ET, game 8:07, FOX
* - if necessary