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 as they downed the Los Angeles Dodgers, 9-0, on Friday night at Busch Stadium. Wacha dominated the gaudier Dodgers as LA's ace Clayton Kershaw wilted in Game 6 of the National League championship series and the Cardinals won the series, four games to two, in front of 46,899. Three rookies got all 27 outs of Game 6 to send the franchise to its fourth World Series in 10 seasons, adding to a winning trend that began back in 2004 -- the same fall Wacha, the series MVP, entered eighth grade.
"There is no stage too big for him," leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter said. "What can you say about that guy? Wacha has proven what kind of warrior he is. He set the tone from the first pitch for what we were about to do."
"The young guys are pushing us to be this good," ace Adam Wainwright said.
A year after their season ended in a downpour in San Francisco, the Cardinals soaked their clubhouse in champagne. The Cardinals' 19th appearance in the World Series ties the San Francisco-New York Giants for the most by any National League team. All season, the Cardinals let last year's lost 3-1 lead to the Giants bother them, nag at them -- like the last popcorn kernel caught between molars. Carpenter described how the team arrived before Friday's game with a simmering intensity, "like nobody wanted to be a part of what happened to us last year." That came up in spring training, about the time Wacha made his first impressions with big-league coaches, and as manager Mike Matheny outlined what he repeatedly called his "goal sheet." He said this year's players, six of whom also won a World Series in 2011, had the chance to "build a legacy" together.
The goals started with winning the division, then winning the National League pennant, and finally claiming the World Series.
Two down. One to go.
"Winning is a tradition. Winning is an expectation," Matheny said after his champagne shower. "We start talking early on about the history and the championships, the great players who have been through here, and the people who have made their mark on this organization. We've still got some work to do."
The Cardinals advance to face Detroit or Boston in the 109th World Series, which will start Wednesday in the American League city. The Cardinals are 11-7 in World Series play.
Carlos Beltran is about to experience his first.
The switch-hitting veteran's wife Jessica remembers the time she woke up nervous Friday morning. She checked the clock. It read 4:10 a.m., and as she looked over to her husband she saw he was up, too. Beltran had his fists together as if holding a bat, grinding his fingers into the imaginary handle. He told her he was thinking about his swing.
"He knew he was close," Jessica said.
A rallying call within the clubhouse this season was getting Beltran, a 15-year veteran, to a World Series. In the final year of his contract, the club that twice held Beltran out of the World Series -- in 2004 and again in 2006 -- got him there. Beltran led the offense in Game 6 with two RBIs and three singles, one of five Cardinals with at least two hits in the game. In the fifth inning, he helped Wacha maintain his shutout by making a running catch in right-center field. In the clubhouse, he held up the first champagne bottle, thanked his teammates for getting him to the World Series and added: "Let's get it done."
He had one word to describe Wacha.
"The kid," he said, "is unbelievable."
Wacha, 22, became the youngest NLCS MVP since Steve Avery in 1991 with Atlanta. He is the first rookie to pitch an NLCS clincher since Fernando Valenzuela did it in 1981, and he's the first Cardinals rookie starter to clinch a championship series since Johnny Beazley did in 1942. Wacha won both of his starts in the NLCS and did not allow a run in 13 2/3 innings. In each of his games he outpitched Kershaw, the only sub-2.00 ERA starter in the majors this past season and the favorite to win the Cy Young Award.
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, Yasiel 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.
The Cardinals unloaded as the Dodgers came unhinged.
"They must feel as if the Arch fell on top of them," Vin Scully said during the Dodgers' broadcast of the game.
The at-bat that tenderized Kershaw was Matt 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.
Shane 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.
The Cardinals were the first team to bat around against the lefty since 2009, and the seven runs Kershaw allowed were the most in any game since July 2012 -- when the Cardinals thumped him for eight. The lefty lost for the sixth time in his past eight starts against the Cardinals, who chased him from the game in the fifth inning. Adams did it with an RBI double that became part of a five-run jag for the Cardinals.
Wacha, who had an RBI and a run in the five-run fifth, retired 12 of the final 13 batters he faced before passing the game to rookie Carlos Martinez and rookie Trevor Rosenthal. They retired all six batters they faced.
Two years after winning the World Series with a team managed by Tony La Russa, coached by Dave Duncan, and led by Albert Pujols, the Cardinals return without all three. Freese, who said the young, shiny stars who have led this run "are insane and probably don't know what they're doing is special." But they're Cardinals.
"I remember when I heard (Pujols) signed. I almost threw up. Holy cow, Albert is gone," Freese said. "Then we signed Carlos (Beltran), and I almost threw up again. It's like, 'OK, here we go.' This is what the Cardinals do. We lost a great manager. We lost a great pitching coach. We lost a great player. We kept moving. That's the way we do it."
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