ST. LOUIS — A wild imagination is not a requirement for being a St. Louis Cardinal, if only because this is a team for which the unimaginable has become almost commonplace these last few Octobers — late-inning lightning-strike walk-offs, no-chance comebacks, out-of-nowhere title runs. But on Friday night, the Cardinals reconvened at Busch Stadium along with 46,899 of their fans, and not a one of them could have dreamed up the scenario by which the franchise’s 19th National League pennant was won.
Standing opposite them, atop the pitcher’s mound, was Clayton Kershaw, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ ace and the best pitcher in the known universe. Scratch out a run or two against him, and the Cardinals would have a chance. To dream any more than that would be silly.
What happened on this cool autumn night, then, was beyond silly and beyond the bounds of imagination. The Cardinals pummeled Kershaw, knocking the great lefty from the game in the fifth inning and romping to a 9-0 victory in Game 6 of the National League Championship Series. The Cardinals, who fell one win shy a year ago, are in the World Series for the second time in three years and the fourth time in the past decade.
“Winning is a tradition [here]. Winning is an expectation,” Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny said. “We’ve got one more step here, and it’s a big one.”
Kershaw, who by this time next month almost certainly will own his second Cy Young Award at the age of 25, was bashed for four runs in an interminable third inning and three more in the fifth (when he failed to record an out) — more runs than he had allowed in his previous seven starts combined. The Dodgers, who gave Kershaw almost no help defensively, never really had a chance.
“There’s no way to explain it,” Kershaw said. “Just one of those games.”
And so the 2013 Dodgers joined the 2013 Pirates, the 2012 Nationals, the 2011 Rangers, the 2011 Brewers, the 2011 Phillies, the 2006 Tigers, the 2006 Mets, the 2006 Padres, the 2005 Padres, the 2004 Astros and the 2004 Dodgers as teams whose postseason dreams had been snuffed out by the Cardinals over the past decade.
Rookie right-hander Michael Wacha, in his 12th big league start, beat Kershaw for the second time this series, delivering seven scoreless innings and winning most valuable player honors. Wacha, 22, gave way to setup man Carlos Martinez, 22, who pitched a 1-2-3 eighth inning. Closer Trevor Rosenthal, 23, retired the side in order in the ninth. All three Cardinals pitchers are rookies.
Right fielder Carlos Beltran, who will make his first World Series appearance in his 16th big league season, had three hits and drove in a pair of runs — his grace and poise a striking contrast to his opposite number, Dodgers rookie right fielder Yasiel Puig, who chucked balls all over the yard and went 0 for 3 with two strikeouts at the plate.
“Today when I woke up, I had the feeling we were going to do it,” Beltran said.
This was a series that almost uniformly went against conventional wisdom. Aces Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Adam Wainwright — with two Cy Young Awards and two runner-up finishes among them — made a total of five starts in the series and won exactly once.
The surest thing in the entire series, as it turned out, was Wacha, who tossed 132 / 3 scoreless innings in the series and sports a 0.43 ERA this postseason. Wacha works at a breathtaking pace, as if someone was merely dropping balls into a pitching machine, one after another. Except this pitching machine throws 95 on the corners with a satanic change-up.
Such was the brilliance of the respective pitchers that when the Cardinals scored the game’s first run — three batters into the third inning — it felt like a knockout blow. But the inning was just getting started at that point. The whole thing blossomed from Matt Carpenter’s one-out double at the end of an 11-pitch at-bat that saw him foul off eight straight strikes.
“He’s the best pitcher in baseball,” Carpenter said. “When he got two strikes on me, my mind-set became, ‘I’m not going to let him strike me out there.’ ”
The next batter, Beltran, hit a screaming one-hopper past second baseman Mark Ellis for an RBI single and took second when Puig unwisely threw home. It was 1-0. Yadier Molina followed with a single up the middle, scoring Beltran. Kershaw leaped in the air in disgust. Puig stood motionless in right field, his glove resting on his hip. It was 2-0.
A single by David Freese and a walk to Matt Adams — on a 3-2 fastball that appeared to nick the bottom of the strike zone — loaded the bases, and Shane Robinson, starting in center field for the Cardinals for the first time in the series, singled to right to bring home two more runs. It was 4-0.
Seeing Kershaw so hittable and so disarmed was stunning. Kershaw threw 48 pitches in that third inning and gave up four runs, his worst inning of the entire season. It was the first time a team had batted around against him in an inning in more than four years.
“Shell-shocked,” catcher A.J. Ellis said of his reaction. “We were expecting a typical Clayton game. But things just spun out of control.”
If the beating had stopped there, it might have been considered merciful. But it continued, the Cardinals opening the fifth with three straight hits until Kershaw was slinking off the mound to find a place in the dugout where he could bury his face in his hands.
Of all the sights this night could have produced, as far as the imagination could stretch, that one was outside the boundaries, too impossible even to dream.
More on the MLB playoffs:
Thomas Boswell: Puig, Dodgers throw it all away in Game 6