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CBSSports.com Senior Baseball Columnist

Just like Cards' season, pitching finishes stronger than it starts

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Venerable relievers Octavio Dotel (left) and Arthur Rhodes play a vital role in the NLCS triumph. (Getty Images)  
Venerable relievers Octavio Dotel (left) and Arthur Rhodes play a vital role in the NLCS triumph. (Getty Images)  

MILWAUKEE -- It was 11:42 p.m. CT when the party really got going inside the Cardinals clubhouse Sunday night. Having clinched their 18th World Series bid -- and third in the past eight seasons under Tony La Russa -- the Cards had been celebrating for close to an hour.

But then reliever Arthur Rhodes, hoisting the jumbo-sized Warren C. Giles Trophy his team had just won as National League Champions with a 12-6 belting of the Brewers, called for the photo op of the evening.

"Bullpen!" he hollered. "Bullpen! Bullpen!"

And just as they had for the past six games of this NL Championship Series, one by one, they sniffed out a path to the trophy. Mark Rzepczynski. Bullpen! Fernando Salas and Jason Motte. Bullpen! Lance Lynn. Bullpen! Mitchell Boggs. All there, except ...

"Dotel!" infielder Nick Punto screamed, and hey, who said he isn't the classic utilityman, always poised to step up and help. "Doteeeel!"

Absolutely, positively, no photo -- or postseason victory -- would be complete without Octavio Dotel (and the stuffed squirrel he was clutching).

NLCS: Cardinals at Brewers
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Pose. Smile. Click.

NL Champions.

The Cardinals did it to Milwaukee in Game 6 the way they did it to the Brewers in each of their three previous victories: They set up the Brewers with a starting pitcher ... and then crushed them with the bullpen.

"I figured our starters would do what they usually do, get you into the last third of the game," La Russa said. "When we got Lynn healthy, and we added Dotel, we have a deep right-handed bullpen, and then the two left-handers [Rhodes and Rzepczynski] complement everybody.

"So we had a real chance. We were going against teams that had a chance."

Then, the starters plan blew to smithereens. And?

Either the World Series has lowered its standards ... or we're watching something really special with these Cardinals.

The Cardinals punched their Fall Classic ticket even though none of their starters lasted long enough to throw one sixth-inning pitch in any of the six games of the NL Championship Series.

Punched it despite their starters obtaining only 73 out of a possible 159 outs.

Punched it despite the starters finishing with a 7.02 ERA, while the bullpen earned three of the four victories.

In those four wins, the pen pitched 20 innings and held Milwaukee to a .094 batting average. The relievers surrendered only six hits, three earned runs, walked four and fanned 15.

"Wow," Dotel said. "Unbelievable. It is unbelievable, because we can't be so perfect. Nothing against the bullpen ... but the main thing is, we're going to the World Series. I'm very, very excited. It's my first time."

In the six games total, St. Louis' bullpen posted a 1.88 ERA and held the Brewers to a .155 batting average.

It was darned close to perfect.

"Our bullpen is not a big-name bullpen, but guys have control of their pitches," said Dotel, who whiffed Ryan Braun again, probably just for fun this time, and now has struck out Braun in nine of 11 at-bats. "Also, we have Yadier Molina behind the plate.

"Whatever pitches he calls, we go for it."

As a bird bath, champagne is wonderful.

Pose. Smile. Click.

NL Champions.

"That picture right there, it's going to be a keeper," Rhodes said. "This bullpen doing what we did this series ... I guarantee you, those young guys are going to remember that frickin' trophy.

"They did a great job, and we're going to keep it going."

The Cardinals won this thing just in the nick (Punto) of time, too. Forget the team. The manager is going to need the two full days to rest before opening with Texas in Game 1 on Wednesday.

La Russa made 28 pitching changes in these six games which, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, is an NLCS record. If you guessed La Russa broke his own record, by the way, you would be correct: The old mark was 25, set by La Russa in 1996 when the Cards were beaten by Atlanta in a seven-game set. Before that? Bobby Valentine made 24 pitching changes for the Mets in 1999 against the Braves.

La Russa used no fewer than five pitchers in any game. He used a high of seven pitchers (Game 2).

"I've got no idea about playing the Rangers right now," La Russa said as someone snuck up from behind and poured an ice-cold bottle of beer down his back, shocking the 67-year-old skipper enough to make him yelp. "Only thing I did, Dave [Duncan, pitching coach] and I conceded, we really haven't looked ahead at all, but [Saturday] night we messed around with the rotation on either winning today or winning tomorrow.

"And it really helps to win today, I can tell you that."

It's the first time the Cardinals can breathe easily in more than a month.

From 10½ games back in the wild-card scramble on Aug. 25 ... to 8½ back on Sept. 6 ... to the 18th World Series berth in Cardinals history.

They won 15 of their final 20 games to steal the wild-card slot from the Braves. Toss in the postseason, and they've now won 22 of their past 31 games.

"We just decided we were going to go play our butts off," Carpenter said. "We didn't know what was going to happen. We were 10½ games behind Atlanta.

"But you know what? We just came and played every day. We got some help with Atlanta losing, but you can't deny the effort level that we put in. It was awesome from top to bottom. Young, old, coaches, trainers, it's been great."

They squeezed possible from impossible, twisted the improbable into probable.

And they did it in a way nobody thought they could, from sprinting through the final month to winning an NLCS in which they did not get one sixth-inning out from a starter.

That last one, that's so crazy even their manager wouldn't have given them a chance had he known that before the series started.

"No," La Russa said. "Absolutely not.

"Except, when I watched the way the games were being played, when Milwaukee was playing Arizona, or when Texas played, it's just a freaky, weird postseason so far.

"It's very possible that in the World Series, you'll see the starters take charge and get back to normal. It's kind of what's defined this postseason so far. And we're fortunate we've got a deep bullpen."

A deep, proud, smiling, hooting, hollering and, in this NLCS, incredibly photogenic bullpen.

"It's hard to explain," Dotel said. "I go to bed sometimes and I stay in my bed and I think, 'Wow, we are in this position. I cannot believe it.' "

Pose. Smile. Click.

NL Champions.

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