St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Michael Wacha is doused by teammate Joe Kelly
St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Michael Wacha is doused by teammate Joe Kelly as they celebrate in the locker room after Game 6 of the National League Championship Photo by AP
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By the end of the National League Championship Series late Friday night, a cold, misty drizzle had settled over Busch Stadium. Nobody seemed to mind. The scoreboard read 9-0 in favor of the home team, just as it did last fall, when the St. Louis Cardinals’ season slipped away in the San Francisco rain.

St. Louis lost that series after leading three games to one, a rare blip in a charmed stretch for the league’s most decorated franchise. This time the Cardinals prevailed, thumping the Los Angeles Dodgers to clinch their fourth trip to the World Series in 10 seasons.

“We’ve been fortunate to be in an organization that winning is a tradition, winning is an expectation,” manager Mike Matheny said. “We start talking early on about the history and the championships.”

The Cardinals, who have more titles than any team but the New York Yankees, will pursue their 12th starting Wednesday, when they open the World Series on the road against the Boston Red Sox. Those teams played the sixth game of the American League Championship Series last night, with Boston leading three games to two.

The Cardinals finished their series by trouncing the Dodgers’ ace, Clayton Kershaw, and showing off their own pitching prodigy. Michael Wacha, drafted in June 2012 out of Texas A&M, worked seven innings for the win and was named the most valuable player of the series.

In his first playoff start, with the Cardinals facing elimination in Pittsburgh, Wacha held the Pirates without a hit until the eighth inning. He is 3-0 with a 0.43 ERA this postseason, having allowed one run and eight hits in 21 innings. He beat Kershaw twice this series without allowing a run.

“It’s unbelievable, being able to have the opportunity to face him in this kind of game,” said Wacha, 22, who made his major league debut in May. “I guess a lot of the talk goes back to last year, when they were up three games to one, and how they kind of let it slip away. But I kind of took it into my own hands, where I wasn’t going to let that happen this year. Our offense didn’t let it happen, either.”

Wacha had help Friday from right fielder Carlos Beltran, who went 3 for 4 and drove in two runs. Beltran, 36, a former New York Met, advanced to the World Series for the first time in his 16-year career.

For Don Mattingly, the Dodgers’ manager and a Yankees great, it was another empty postseason. Mattingly has never made the World Series in any capacity across 24 major league seasons. The Dodgers hold a 2014 option on their contract with Mattingly, who declined the chance to frame the loss in personal terms.

“This is a team thing,” he said, adding later: “I felt like these guys hung in all year long. They were a great group to be around. I felt like these guys have a lot of fun, but they do get down to business — sometimes a little unconventional, but they do love to play, and I think they represent the Dodger organization well.
Proud of my club.”

The Dodgers indeed had fun this season, romping through the summer after a slow start, welcoming the dynamic Yasiel Puig to the team and leading the league in home and road attendance. In taking this series to six games, they advanced closer to the World Series than they had since 1988, when they won it.

Los Angeles sought to become the first team since the 2004 Red Sox to win Games 6 and 7 of a postseason series on the road, and Kershaw seemed to give them a strong chance to force a finale. He had not lost consecutive starts since mid-April and seems a lock to win his second Cy Young Award.

But there were danger signs from the start: a double by Beltran in the first inning, two wild pitches in the second and a magnificent at-bat in the third by Matt Carpenter, the league leader in hits.

“He’s the best pitcher in baseball,” Carpenter said. “He’s a real tough at-bat. He got ahead of me like he almost always does. I struck out my first at-bat, and honestly, when he got to two strikes on me the second at-bat, my mind-set immediately changed: ‘I’m not striking out. I’m not going to let him strike me out right here. I’m going to put this ball in play.’”

Carpenter saw 11 pitches before he doubled to the right-field corner on a slider over the plate. Kershaw fell behind Beltran, who singled home Carpenter before Matt Holliday fanned for the second out.

With a count of 0-2 on Yadier Molina, Kershaw could not limit the damage. Molina worked the count to 2-2 and lashed a high slider up the middle for a single. Beltran scored, and for a moment Kershaw stood alone on the grass between the mound and the third-base line, hands on his hips, staring into the upper deck.

It only got worse. A single by David Freese, again on a slider. A walk to Matt Adams on a ball that seemed to cross the bottom of the strike zone, at the knees. Kershaw barked at the plate umpire, Greg Gibson. So did Mattingly and Los Angeles’ pitching coach, Rick Honeycutt.

They’ve come undone

The Dodgers were quickly crumbling, and when Shane Robinson punched a fastball to right, Puig detonated the inning with a careless throw that soared over the catcher. The error had no consequence — the runners advanced to second and third, without scoring — but it symbolized the prepackaged story line.

The Dodgers were loose and unhinged. The Cardinals were dignified and professional. Both are caricatures, too simplistic to mean very much, but the teams played into their stereotypes. With Wacha in command, the 4-0 deficit all but finished the Dodgers.

“At four, you’re still in it, but you’re barely hanging on,” Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis said. “The bottom line is, we didn’t score any runs, either. We didn’t put any pressure on them. They were pretty comfortable the entire night out there on the field. When you’re always feeling like you’re on the defensive and you’re always on your heels, it’s very hard to win baseball games.”

Kershaw needed 48 pitches to wade through the third inning, and while he retired the side in the fourth, he could not record an out in the fifth. Puig made another error that inning, misplaying Molina’s leadoff single. Two more hits knocked Kershaw from the game.

Mattingly said the third-inning trouble leaked into the fifth. “Obviously, on this night, we’re going to let him go a little bit,” Mattingly said. “But that’s just a lot of pitches to recover from.”

Only once before, in July 2008, had Kershaw allowed at least 10 hits and five runs without getting an out in the fifth inning. That game, at Coors Field in Denver, was his ninth in the majors.

Kershaw has grown since then, leading the league in ERA in each of the last three seasons. This year he became the first Dodger since Sandy Koufax with an ERA under 2.00. But the innings piled up — 259, including the postseason — and Mattingly had Kershaw pitch the division series clincher on three days’ rest.
Perhaps the workload finally caught up to Kershaw. Or maybe it was just the Cardinals, doing what they do so often, seizing the moment in October.