Cardinals' wild run to World Series

MILWAUKEE -- One of these days, they're going to wake up in the middle of the night and wonder, "How did we get here?"

One of these days, they're going to look around at the World Series flags flapping in the breeze and ask, "How did we do this?"

One of these days, this impossible dream is going to hit home, and they're going to think, "This can't be real. This can't be happening."

Oh, but it's happening, all right. The St. Louis Cardinals are heading for the World Series. But not just any World Series.

This World Series is an official baseball miracle, the culmination of a story that defies even their own imagination.

"It's hard to explain, man," said reliever Octavio Dotel on this unforgettable Sunday night, the night his team finished both this NLCS and its unfathomable World Series journey with a typically insane 12-6 win over the Brewers. "It's really hard to explain.

"I go to bed sometimes," Dotel went on, "and I sit in bed and I say, 'Wow, we're in this spot, and I can't believe it. I can't believe where we are and how we've been playing for the last month.'"

Well, of course he can't believe it. Who could possibly believe it? Not those of us who have watched it. Not even the men who have been out there making it happen.

The Ariel Brut Cuvee may have been dripping on this wild, euphoric night. But how were they supposed to comprehend this -- 30 wins in their last 43 games, roaring from a million games behind, clinching on the last day of the season AFTER they'd finished playing, upsetting the Phillies, unseating the Brewers, dodging squirrels in the batter's box?

"It's crazy where we are right now," said Dotel, standing there with a champagne bottle in one hand and his "lucky squirrel" in the other. "I don't know how to explain it to you. But we're in the World Series, man. And I hope my squirrel don't let me down."

The lucky squirrel got tossed into the Cardinals' bullpen in Game 5 of the NLDS in Philadelphia. It's been traveling around with them ever since. Now, it turns out, there are many more miles to travel -- and not just for that squirrel.

This will be the 18th World Series in the history of one of baseball's marquee franchises, but none of those other 17 World Series rides went quite like this.

This wasn't a comeback. It was a reincarnation.

How do you wind up in the World Series when you're 10½ games out with 31 to play, when you're 8½ out in September, when you're 7½ out with 20 to play, when you're three games out with five to play? There are teams that have come close to pulling off a finish that wild. No team has ever done ALL of that. Trust us. We've checked.

So it's no wonder that, on the night the champagne flowed and the World Series tickets were punched, the magnitude of what just happened here still hadn't registered. How could it? They were too busy doing it to think about it.

Asked Sunday night if he'd been able to digest what his team had accomplished, Tony La Russa shook his head and answered: "No, because one of the keys is, you can never allow yourself to look back, because that's a distraction."

"We remind ourselves of that every day," La Russa said. "Even today, we went around to different players and reminded them it's always about maintaining your edge for that next game you play. So if even for a minute you do either one -- look ahead or look back -- you lose that edge."

So there was no time, even on this day, for them to ask: "How did we get here?" Which means we'll just have to ask it for them.

How do you wind up in the World Series when your best starting pitcher (Adam Wainwright) disappears for the season because of injury before you've even played a spring-training game?

How do you wind up in the World Series when you lose 25 games in your last at-bat … and 13 walk-offs … and 11 agonizing games you've led in the ninth inning or later?

How do you wind up in the World Series when, amidst all that, Albert Pujols breaks his wrist … and Matt Holliday visits the disabled list twice … and Chris Carpenter starts out 1-7 … and, well, you get the picture?

And, to top it all off, how do you wind up in the World Series when, in the League Championship Series that completes that journey, you need your relief pitchers to get more outs (86) than your starters (73)?

"I know that wasn't the plan," Carpenter said. "But those guys came in and absolutely dominated this series."

Those relievers racked up a fabulous 1.88 ERA in this NLCS. And let's just say it's a good thing -- because only one other team in history -- the 1979 Pirates -- ever won a best-of-seven postseason series in which the bullpen got more outs than the starters.

And only one other manager in history (Boston's Terry Francona, in the seven-game 2004 ALCS) ever made more pitching changes in any series (30) than La Russa made in just six games in this series (28).

And NO other team in history had ever won a postseason series without a single starting pitcher getting an out in the sixth inning or beyond -- a dubious honor locked up in this game when starter Edwin Jackson couldn't make it past the second inning.

"It's hard to believe that, man," Dotel said. "I mean, wow. No starting pitcher went more than five innings in this series, in six games against Milwaukee. You've got to think about that, because it's unbelievable. In six games, we got more outs than the starting pitchers. That's unbelievable. I mean, that can't happen. I don't know how to explain that to you guys.

"But the main thing is, we're here," he said. "We're going to the World Series. And I'm very, very excited to be in the World Series … me and my squirrel."

It was fitting, then, that they needed all the squirrel luck they could muster in this game -- not to mention all the thunder that Pujols, Lance Berkman, David Freese and this offense could muster.

When Freese fired a ballpark-silencing three-run homer over the left-field fence in the first to give the Cardinals a 4-0 lead, you might have thought this was actually going to be easy. But then Jackson went out and served up THREE bombs himself, to the first eight Brewers he faced. And next thing the Cardinals knew, this was a 5-4 game and Miller Park was in full rocking, rolling, bedlam mode again.

But up stomped Pujols to lead off the third inning -- and tomahawked a shoulder-blade-high fastball into the second deck in left, watching every inch of its flight. It was a statement kind of swing in what has been a statement kind of postseason for Sir Albert. It launched a big inning that stretched the Cardinals' lead back out to 9-4. And the Brewers would never get closer than four runs again.

Still, with Jackson done after six outs, the manager had to keep waving for those apparently tireless relievers of his, one after another after another, for 21 humongous outs. And that's enough to exhaust any manager -- even a noted pitching-change addict like Tony La Russa.

Asked afterward how long this game had felt to HIM, La Russa looked at his wrist -- which didn't have a watch wrapped around it -- and deadpanned: "It's gotta be past 1 o'clock in the morning, isn't it?"

Uhhh, about quarter past 11 was more like it, but welcome to his world. Even when it was 12-6 in the ninth, he said, "I was sweating bullets."

He wasn't alone, though. On nights like this, in some ways, it doesn't matter what the score is -- not when human beings begin to contemplate what's at stake if they can just get that 27th out.

And that's especially true if you happen to be the man who is going to be handed the baseball and asked to wrap up that 27th out.

"Early in the game, I honestly thought about that," said Jason Motte, the closer his manager still can't bring himself to officially anoint as The Closer. "But then, as it was coming down toward the time, I said, 'Crap, I may actually have to pitch.'"

But Motte laughed as he uttered those words, because who wouldn't want to pitch the inning that would send his team to the World Series?

He's another astonishing story on a team full of them. Spent three seasons in the minor leagues as a catcher. Rode his electric arm to the big leagues within two years after trying out pitching for a living. Then rode the bullpen Ferris wheel round and round, hurt his shoulder, almost became a starter, and didn't end up in this closer's gig until the final days of August.

But by NLCS time, La Russa had so much faith, he sent for Motte in the eighth inning of THREE different games. And the three perfect four-out saves that followed, the Elias Sports Bureau tells us, just happened to be the most by any pitcher not named Mariano Rivera in postseason history.

Now, what Motte did on this night was not considered "a save" by the proper authorities. But big whoop. By the time he grabbed the baseball in the ninth, six-run lead or no six-run lead, Motte said he just zoned in on the job at hand.

He got the first out on a routine ground ball. He got the second out on a spectacular catch by center fielder John Jay. And then, with two outs in the ninth and an 0-2 count on Mark Kotsay, Jason Motte's frozen moment was about to arrive.

He took a quick stroll behind the mound. He rubbed up this soon-to-be-historic baseball. He reached back for 99 mph worth of premium unleaded. Kotsay swung right through it. And this magic carpet was headed for the World Series.

"When that third out got made, I didn't know what to do," Motte confessed. "I saw Yadi [Molina]. I know Yadi's arms went up. And I think mine went up. But I have to watch the replay or something, because I don't know what I did. Next thing I know, I'm on the bottom of the pile, and everybody's yelling and screaming. It was amazing."

It was 10:49 p.m. in an almost eerily quiet ballpark, except for a few hundred Cardinals fans who were doing their best to sound like 40,000. Over the six months from April through September, that team that plays in Miller Park was six games better than the Cardinals. But over six games in October, all that changed, much to the shock of the poor city of Milwaukee.

They don't even want to know that only three teams in history had ever done what these Cardinals did on this night -- booked their trip to a World Series by eliminating the champs of their very own division in a postseason game played on the champs' home field. But that's how the great Octoberfest works: It makes six-game leads melt into the night.

It was the Brewers … and the Braves … and the Phillies who made the mistake of giving the Cardinals an opening to crash this party, by not putting this team away in September when they had the chance. And once the Cardinals sneaked past the bouncers, they turned into all those teams' worst nightmare.

One of these days, the lightning bolt will strike them -- and it will hit them what they've done. But not right now. Not yet. There's no time for that.

"I don't WANT it to hit me," said infielder Nick Punto. "I just want to live in this moment. I'll think about that later, because we've got a tough task ahead against Texas."

But he knows that that special moment of revelation is coming, in the middle of some offseason night when he least expects it. One of these days, it's going to dawn on him, and dawn on them all -- that they've just turned their little mission impossible into a very real episode of their very real lives.

"Boy," Punto mused, "it would be amazing to pull this off.

"All we have to do is win four more games," he said, standing in the locker room of the unlikely National League champions, "and this would be the greatest feeling in the world."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in a new paperback edition in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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