ST. LOUIS – Drama left the park early Friday night. Just ahead of Clayton Kershaw. The best team in the National League is going to the World Series, and it's just that simple.
The Cardinals won 97 games during the regular season, more than anybody else in the NL, and here's the thing: Rookie Michael Wacha made just nine starts. Can you imagine if this kid had been installed into their rotation back in April? What, then, 130 wins?
Wacha rolled the Dodgers, the Cardinals lit up Kershaw, and the most special moment about this 9-0 NL Championship clincher didn't even happen on the field.
No, it came in the clubhouse, where the Cardinals – now headed to their fourth World Series in 10 years -- stood around for several moments, surrounded by the plastic sheeting protecting their lockers, awaiting the arrival of their spiritual leader, Carlos Beltran, before spraying the champagne.
And when he arrived, he gratefully accepted a bottle of bubbly, held it and offered what essentially was a toast – to his teammates, to where they've been and, most certainly, to where they're going.
“People say you guys have been on a mission to get me to the World Series,” Beltran, who has never been there, told his teammates. “I appreciate it.”
Then, after a few more words, he had one final thought for them: “Let's get this done!”
Pop went the champagne corks, up went the clubhouse stereo, on went the party.
Next stop: Boston or Detroit, and Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday.
Over 16 seasons, Beltran has played in 2,064 regular season games and, now, 45 postseason games.
So close was he against these Dodgers that his wife, Jessica, spoke late Friday night of being so nervous that she was up at 4 a.m., anticipating the evening. And when she arose, she saw the strangest sight: Her husband, already up, bat in hand, working on his swing.
“I thought a lot about today,” Beltran said in a champagne-drenched Cardinals clubhouse. “I thought a lot about who we were facing. I envisioned myself facing Kershaw, just trying to live it before it happened, do you know what I'm saying?
“For me, I envision myself having success before I have it. For me, I woke up today feeling confident, feeling you know what, that you lived this last night. You still have to come here and do it and get prepared. I did that, I came here, I looked at [Kershaw video] from different angles. I looked at him pitching in different situations so I had an idea of what I was going to look for.
“Being able to come through is a different story.”
Though they had listened for two days about how they were up 3 games to 1 over the Giants a year ago in the NLCS and blew it, these Cardinals are accustomed to coming through. They've played in the postseason in 10 of the past 14 seasons, and they now move onto their second World Series in three seasons.
There were two key differences from last year's near-miss to this year's hit-it-out-of-the-park. One, unlike last year, they had home-field advantage in Games 6 and 7. Two, Wacha.
It was catcher Yadier Molina who said at one point this spring that the kid was ready for the majors right now, which was a mouthful being that one year prior, Wacha was pitching for Texas A&M.
He wound up dueling Kershaw in Game 2 and again in Game 6 and led the Cardinals to a win in each. From the school that brought you Johnny Football, meet Michael Baseball: In three postseason starts, Wacha constructed an incredible 0.43 ERA. Over 21 October innings pitched, he's struck out 22, walked four, yielded only eight hits and surrendered just one earned run.
He was named as NLCS MVP, the youngest winner since the Braves' Steve Avery in 1991. He also becamse the first rookie to start and win an NLCS-clinching game since Fernando Valenzuela in 1981.
“Man, he's a superstar,” second baseman Matt Carpenter said. “I think we're watching a guy evolve into a dominant pitcher in major league baseball. …
“He got an opportunity, and he ran with it. There's no doubt that if we didn't have him up here, we wouldn't be here.”
Said catcher Yadier Molina: “The guy is something else. Unbelievable. He's got the heart. He's got the knowledge. You can see his confidence.
“The guy is unbelievable.”
So Friday's expected encore pitting Wacha against Kershaw fizzled early, because the guy who's going to win the NL Cy Young award couldn't keep up with the kid.
Beneath the blizzard of Cards runs backing Wacha stood one enormous plate appearance that started the avalanche: Carpenter's, with one out in the third. Kershaw had thrown two wild pitches an inning earlier, an indication that he was fighting his curveball.
Well, after taking ball one, Carpenter fouled off seven consecutive pitches. Kershaw emptied his tool box: Fastballs. Sliders. The curve. The ninth pitch was ball two. Then Carpenter fouled off an eighth pitch, and then sent Yasiel Puig scurrying into the right-field corner with the 11th pitch of the at-bat. Double, on an 86 m.p.h. slider that didn't quite slide.
Before the Dodgers knew it, their night was over. As iconic Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully said, it was as if the Arch fell over on top of them.
“He threw everything he had against me,” said Carpenter, who led the majors in runs scored and the NL in hits this season. “He really only made one mistake against me in the whole at-bat, and I was able to get it.”
Up next, Beltran pulled on the Kershaw thread that Carpenter had started to unravel, cracking an RBI single that put the Cardinals on top 1-0. Two innings later, astoundingly, Kershaw was gone. By game's end, Beltran had two more hits – three total – and two RBI.
And the celebration was on.
Not that it is unfamiliar in these parts. The Cardinals have played in the postseason in 10 of the last 14 years, and Friday they clinched the organization's 20th World Series appearance. No franchise not named “Yankees” has played in more World Series'. With 11 titles, the proud Cardinals also rank second only to the Yankees.
Beltran, 36, must feel as if he's finally living his dream. Though that is completely different from what he was doing with the bat in his hand at 4 a.m. Friday.
“I just couldn't' sleep,” Beltran said. “I was thinking. I was going over a lot of different scenarios in my mind.
“It's incredible how the power of the mind sometimes works.”
Now, someone asked him, what the heck are you visualizing for next week?
“Well, you know what? First I've got to go to bed and think about it,” Beltran said. “Hopefully, we can win, man.”
It will be up to the Red Sox or Tigers to see what he comes up with. You can bet, those in St. Louis already can't wait.