ST. LOUIS -- It took one of the youngest Cardinals to continue the oldest of Cardinals traditions.
Michael Wacha, barely 16 months removed from his junior year in college, hurled the Cardinals into the franchise's 19th World Series with seven shutout innings against the richer, glitzier Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday night at Busch Stadium in front of 46,899. Wacha dominated as Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw capitulated in an overwhelming, 9-0 victory by the host Cardinals in Game 6 of the National League championship series.
The Cardinals claimed the series, four games to two, and advanced to their fourth World Series in 10 seasons. That's twice as many as any other team in a stretch that began back in 2004 -- the fall Wacha entered eighth grade.
The Cardinals' 19th trip to the World Series ties the San Francisco-New York Giants franchise for the most by any National League club.
For the first time in the club's history the Cardinals made good on a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven NLCS. All season, the Cardinals let last year's loss of a 3-1 lead to the Giants drive them, nag at them -- like the last popcorn kernel caught between molars. It came up in spring training, about the time Wacha first made an impression, as manager Mike Matheny outlined what he called "a goal sheet." He said this year's players, so many of whom won a World Series in 2011, had the chance to build "a legacy."
The goal sheet included winning the division, winning the National League pennant and winning the World Series.
Two down, one to go.
The Cardinals advance to face either Detroit or Boston in the 109th World Series. The Cardinals are 11-7 in World Series.
Wacha became the first rookie to win the NLCS Most Valuable Player award since Florida's Livan Hernandez in 1997, and he did so by holding the Dodgers scoreless in 13 2/3 innings during the series. In both of his NLCS starts, the 22-year-old Wacha bested the league's unchallenged top pitcher, Kershaw. Wacha became the first Cardinals rookie to clinch a title series since Johnny Beazley won Game 5 of the World Series in 1942.
While Wacha continued his pristine October, the Dodgers found not even a record-setting payroll can buy poise. Two days after forcing the series back to St. Louis with a Game 5 victory, the Dodgers cracked. Kershaw had his shortest outing of the season at four innings, Yaisel Puig committed two errors in the outfield, and the Dodgers played a ragged brand of baseball that included wild pitches and curious decisions in the field. The Cardinals exploited each mishap, branding the Dodgers with the biggest innings of the series: a four-run pop in the third inning and five more in the fifth inning.
"They must feel as if the Arch fell on top of them," Vin Scully said during the Dodgers' broadcast of the game.
The first run of the game was driven in by Carlos Beltran, who advances to the first World Series of his career. Twice before the Cardinals have stopped him short of the World Series -- in 2004 and again in 2006 -- and last fall they couldn't get him there. Beltran played like a vet on the brink of a dream. He singled home Matt Carpenter to put the Cardinals ahead 1-0, scored for a 2-0 lead and didn't stop there.
Beltran had three hits, two RBIs and slugged one ball that went to the warning track. In the fifth inning he helped Wacha by racing to catch a line drive from Juan Uribe, stumbling into a dive as he did so.
"It's always been a theme of what these guys would like to see happen," general manager John Mozeliak said before a game at Dodger Stadium. "For all of St. Louis, we think back to his days in Houston and he may have been the best player on the planet at the time. He's been close. Every one of us would like to see him get that opportunity. It would be a special moment."
Beltran was one of five Cardinals who had at least two hits. Shane Robinson matched him with two RBIs, and a club that had 12 runs in the first five games of the series unloaded for nine as the Dodgers came unhinged.
The at-bat that tenderized Kershaw was Carpenter's 11-pitch grind with one out in the third inning. Kershaw tested the Cardinals' leadoff hitter with an assortment of his Cy Young award-winning pitches. A 94-mph fastball? Fouled off. A 75-mph curveball? Fouled off. An 86-mph slider? Fouled off. A 95-mph fastball? Fouled back. Carpenter fouled off a total of eight pitches to keep the at-bat alive and keep Kershaw's pitch count growing. The Cardinals had already worked Kershaw for 33 pitches through two innings.
Carpenter turned Kershaw's 49th pitch -- the 11th pitch of the at-bat -- into a double into right field and the most unexpected of routs was on.
Beltran followed with an RBI single past a shifted infield for the Cardinals' 1-0 lead. Beltran took second on Yasiel Puig's ill-advised attempt to throw home and Adrian Gonzalez's muffed catch.
Kershaw momentarily calmed the inning with a strikeout of Matt Holliday. With two outs and the lefty's pitch count mushrooming, the Cardinals surged. Yadier Molina fell behind 0-2 to Kershaw before stinging a 2-2 pitch for an RBI single that scored Beltran. David Freese singled, and rookie Matt Adams worked a two-out walk to load the bases. Kershaw had two pitches that appeared to tickle the edge of the strike zone, but both were called balls.
Robinson received the first postseason start of his career to provide "a spark" for the offense, Matheny said hours before first pitch. He provided a punctuation.
The center fielder poked a two-run single to right field and took second on an error by Puig to give the Cardinals an early 4-0 lead on Kershaw and keep the lefty unsteady.
Kershaw, the only starter in baseball with a sub-2.00 ERA, had not allowed a team to bat around against him since 2009. Only four times in his 36 previous starts this season, including the playoffs, had he allowed as many as four runs in a single game. The Cardinals scored four in one inning. The seven runs total the Cardinals tagged him with were a season high, and the last time a team scored more than five against Kershaw in a start was July 24, 2012 -- when the Cardinals thumped him for eight.
Kershaw has lost six of his past eight starts against the Cardinals.
The third-inning jubilee was the Cardinals' first extended rally of the series. They hadn't had four hits in a single inning at all until they did it twice while losing Game 5. But it fit snugly into their regular-season success. Throughout this past summer, the Cardinals excelled at decoding pitchers by their second time through the order. A .246-hitting lineup in their first at-bats against a starter, the Cardinals surged in their second looks to hit .301, the highest in the majors. The only other teams to hit .290 or better their second time against a starter were Boston and Detroit, the two clubs playing Game 6 of the American League championship series tonight.
The Cardinals chased Kershaw from the game in the fifth as they sprung a five-run inning on the Dodgers.
Another single by Molina and another error from live-wire Puig in right field hastened Kershaw's departure. Rookie Adams' double down the left-field line forced it. The Dodgers' ragged play continued as the bullpen failed to keep inherited runners from scoring. A prolonged rundown allowed the Cardinals to get two runners into scoring position. A wild pitch allowed Pete Kozma to score the Cardinals' eighth run, and Wacha even drove home and scored a run in the inning.
That's more than the Dodgers did against the rookie.
Wacha allowed one Dodger to reach scoring position through his seven innings, and he struck out five. A double play in the first helped him face the minimum through three innings. The rookie righty retired the 12 of the final 13 batters he faced.
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