ST. LOUIS — Without a legitimate superstar, nestled in this baseball-rich area of the Midwest, and with a rookie pitcher who was hurling in the Southeastern Conference just 18 months ago, the St. Louis Cardinals are on their way to a 19th World Series in their typical workmanlike fashion.
They peppered former Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw, wearing out the lefthander with patient at-bats, frustrating him with foul balls, and chasing him with timely hitting in a Game 6 romp in the NLCS.
Kershaw, assigned to send this to an epic final game, couldn’t make it out of the fifth inning as the Cardinals’ offense arose, scoring four times in the third and five times in the fifth inning to cruise to a 9-0 win at Busch Stadium on Friday night.
The Cardinals will meet the winner of the Red Sox-Tigers series, with Game 1 set for Wednesday at the American League city.
The Cardinals’ names are hardly household: Carpenter, Kozma, Robinson, Freese, Wacha, but St. Louis proved better than the highly paid Dodgers over the course of the series. Michael Wacha, the NLCS MVP, allowed just two hits and no runs in seven innings, Yadier Molina snapped a slump with two hits, and Matt Carpenter set the tone with the at-bat of the series with one out in the third inning of a scoreless game.
His 11-pitch at-bat resulted in a double that sparked a shocking four-run third inning off Kershaw, who yielded zero earned runs in six innings in Game 2. The Cardinals then sealed the game with five runs off a frustrated Kershaw and Los Angeles bullpen in the fifth.
“I struck out my first at-bat,’’ said Carpenter, “and honestly, when he got two strikes on me the second bat, my mind-set immediately changed: ‘I’m not striking out.’ He kept making good pitches and I kept fouling them off. And finally he made a mistake with a slider out over the plate and I was able to hit it. He just continued to make good pitches and I would foul it off. And I know that’s frustrating for a pitcher.”
Dodgers rookie right fielder Yasiel Puig, one of the biggest surprises in baseball this season, added to the Los Angeles woes in the third with two errors in right field, one on a throw that landed on the backstop.
The Dodgers, looking to take this series to a decisive Game 7, simply imploded.
Meanwhile, the Cardinals produced their best offensive output of the playoffs.
“We haven’t seen the ceiling with a lot of these young players,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “We’re very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish. We’re also very, very clear that we’ve still got a long way to go. They realize this is special.”
The Cardinals seized control of the game in their typical pesky, unspectacular fashion.
With one out in the third inning, Carpenter took the first pitch for a ball from Kershaw, then proceeded to foul off seven consecutive pitches. After another ball and foul ball, Carpenter slapped a double into the right-field corner, St. Louis’s third hit of the game.
That brought up Carlos Beltran and he proceeded to punch a single to right field to score Carpenter. Puig’s throw home crossed up cutoff man Adrian Gonzalez, allowing Beltran to reach second.
One out later, Molina, who blew two St. Louis rallies in Game 5 with double-play grounders, poked a single to center field, scoring Beltran.
Kershaw began laboring, growing increasingly dissatisfied with home plate umpire Greg Gibson’s strike zone. David Freese followed with a single and Matt Adams took two close pitches to walk to load the bases.
Finally, Game 4 hero Shane Robinson, getting the start for the struggling Jon Jay, singled to right and Puig uncorked a throw that sailed to the backstop, extending the disastrous inning as two runners scored.
Kershaw was forced to walk shortstop Pete Kozma intentionally to face Wacha for the second time in the inning. He struck out his counterpart to complete a marathon 49-pitch inning, the most stunning sequence of the series.
“That took a lot of out of him,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said of Kershaw. “These guys fight off pitches. They fouls balls off with men in scoring position. They take their hits. We knew that coming in these guys were tough. I think [Kershaw] threw 40 pitches that inning and that’s a lot to recover from.”
The Cardinals then used three consecutive hits and an error to chase Kershaw in the fifth. St. Louis then piled on, using a J.P. Howell wild pitch to score a run and Beltran added another RBI single to cap the five-run inning.
The brisk night got off to a strange start when St. Louis pitcher Joe Kelly and Los Angeles reserve infielder Scott Van Slyke stood in front of their respective dugouts throughout the national anthem and while Wacha was making his warm-up pitches and Carl Crawford was approaching the plate to begin the game.
It added to what has become a contentious series between the clubs.
The standoff between Van Slyke and Kelly ignited the crowd for the opening innings. Crawford opened the game by reaching on an infield single. But Mark Ellis, prone to making big outs in the series, bounced into a 5-4-3 double play.
Gonzalez, booed vigorously by the Busch Stadium crowd for his two home runs and Mickey Mouse gesture in Game 5, ended the inning with a grounder to third.
Despite Hanley Ramirez being a late insertion into the starting lineup, the Dodgers could manage just two hits and had none of the energy created from their Game 5 victory.Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe. Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.