During the regular season, we saw not one, but two teams advance to the playoffs in the most improbable of fashions. The Tampa Bay Rays erased an enormous late Boston Red Sox lead in the standings to take the AL Wild Card on the final day, and the St. Louis Cardinals erased an enormous late Atlanta Braves lead in the standings to take the NL Wild Card on the final day. It was all very unlikely and amazing.
Now, in the postseason, we've seen not one, but two teams advance to the World Series in the most improbable of fashions. The Texas Rangers are moving on despite a starting rotation with a 5.62 playoff ERA and an average under five innings a game, and the St. Louis Cardinals are moving on despite a starting rotation that had a 5.43 playoff ERA and averaged under five innings a game.
For a few reasons, then, it's hard to believe the Cardinals have done what they've done. And I haven't even mentioned Adam Wainwright's season-ending injury yet. But they're going to the World Series, and they're going to have home-field advantage.
Sunday night, Tony La Russa handed the ball to Edwin Jackson to start Game 6 of the NLCS. Jackson lasted all of two innings before La Russa went to his bullpen, meaning not once in the entire series did a Cardinals starter throw a pitch in the sixth. But despite Jackson's struggles, the Cardinals beat the Brewers to take the series, and they were able to do so because - as has often been the case - their bullpen was strong, and their offense was stronger.
The Cardinals got off to a blazing start against Shaun Marcum. Marcum had been in a rut of some historical significance, and things didn't get any better Sunday, as Marcum was knocked out after one inning of work. Lance Berkman singled home a run with one out in the top of the first, and two batters later, David Freese launched a three-run homer to left. Just like that, the Cardinals were up 4-0, and it might have been 5-0 had Albert Pujols not been called out on a close play at the plate on which he appeared safe.
The Brewers struck back when Corey Hart led off the bottom of the first with a long home run to center, but the Cardinals got that run right back when Rafael Furcal took Chris Narveson deep in the top of the second. At that point it was 5-1, and the slugfest was on.
The bottom of the second saw the Brewers get as close as they would get. Rickie Weeks took Jackson's second pitch of the inning out for a solo homer. Three batters later, Jonathan Lucroy blasted another homer, this one to left-center with a man on. The Cardinals' lead had been trimmed to 5-4, and the Miller Park crowd was abuzz.
But the top of the third saw the Cardinals drive in what was effectively the final nail in the Brewers' coffin. Albert Pujols led off with a rocket of a home run to deep left field. Later, with the bases loaded, Nick Punto lifted a sacrifice fly, and Allen Craig followed with a two-run single. A 5-4 game became a 9-4 game, and the Brewers were up against it.
That's Hairston committing a pair of errors on one play in the top of the fifth, on which a run scored. Another unearned run would score two batters later, and the Cardinals were in front 11-5. Though it was only halfway done, the game was basically over.
There was little action the rest of the way - the first half of the game featured 16 runs, while the second half of the game featured two runs. The Brewers never threatened to make things close, and both Craig Counsell and Prince Fielder received standing ovations from the crowd, as neither player is expected to return as a Brewer in 2012. The final out of the game was a three-pitch strikeout of Mark Kotsay by Jason Motte, sealing the 12-6 decision.
So it's the Cardinals and the Rangers, with the World Series set to begin Wednesday night in St. Louis. Neither team has gotten this far by riding its starting rotation, but then, each team is strong enough that it hasn't had to. This should be a hell of a good, long series.