MILWAUKEE (AP) - An afterthought in early September, the St. Louis Cardinals are taking their wild ride all the way to the World Series.
David Freese hit a three-run homer in the first and manager Tony La Russa turned again to his brilliant bullpen for seven sturdy innings as St. Louis captured its 18th pennant with a 12-6 victory over the bumbling Milwaukee Brewers on Sunday night.
Albert Pujols and the wild-card Cardinals took out the heavily favored Phillies in the first round, then dispatched the division-rival Brewers on their own turf in Game 6 of the NL championship series.
Looking for its second title in six seasons, St. Louis opens the World Series at home Wednesday night with ace Chris Carpenter on the mound against the AL champion Texas Rangers.
Trailing by 10 1â„2 games in the wild-card race Aug. 25, the Cardinals surged down the stretch and took advantage of a monumental collapse by Atlanta to win a playoff spot on the final night of the regular season.
Now, bolstered by a group of no-name relievers who keep answering La Russa's call, the Cardinals are back in the World Series for the first time since beating Detroit in 2006.
What a relief!
It was a disappointing end to a scintillating season for Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun and the NL Central champion Brewers, who finished with a franchise-record 96 wins, six games ahead of St. Louis.
Baseball's best home team collapsed in the NLCS, though, losing twice at Miller Park in an error-filled flop. It was likely Fielder's final game with the Brewers, too. He can become a free agent after the season.
Rafael Furcal and Pujols hit solo homers off Chris Narveson and St. Louis built a 9-4 lead by the time the bullpen took over for Edwin Jackson in the third inning.
The group of Fernando Salas, Marc Rzepczynski, Octavio Dotel, Lance Lynn and Jason Motte allowed two runs the rest of the way. For the series, St. Louis relievers finished 3-0 with a 1.88 ERA over 282â„3 innings.
The biggest scare came when Pujols appeared shaken up after tagging out Braun in the fifth inning when he fell hard on his right forearm on a close play at first base. The three-time MVP was slow to get up, but stayed in the game.
St. Louis went 15-5 over the final 20 games to clinch a playoff spot on the final day of the regular season. The Cardinals needed Carpenter to throw a shutout to beat the Phillies 1-0 in Game 5 of the NLDS, but took control of this series beginning in Game 2 by getting early leads and letting their bullpen lead the way.
Jackson's start was the shortest of the postseason for the Cardinals rotation, which finished the NLCS with a 7.66 ERA. St. Louis became the first team to win a postseason series without a starter reaching the sixth inning, according to STATS LLC.
Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks and Jonathan Lucroy all homered for the Brewers.
It was the two ugly defensive performances that will likely linger for Milwaukee, which committed four errors in a 7-1 loss in Game 5 and added three more in Game 6.
The Brewers' biggest hitters - Braun, Fielder and Weeks - finished 1-for-12. Fielder, the All-Star game MVP and the reason St. Louis will start at home on Wednesday, received a standing ovation in his final at-bat in the eighth. He grounded out and slowly walked back to the dugout with his head down.
Struggling starter Shaun Marcum never really gave Milwaukee a chance and was hurt by defensive plays that weren't ruled errors.
In the first, Jon Jay singled with one out and stole second when Weeks couldn't hold onto Lucroy's throw. Marcum believed he had strike three on Pujols, who ended up walking.
Lance Berkman singled against Marcum to drive in the first run, and center fielder Nyjer Morgan made an ill-advised throw to third, with Pujols moving from first to third, that let Berkman advance.
Marcum saved a run by grabbing Matt Holliday's grounder and flipping it out of his glove to Lucroy to get Pujols at the plate, but Freese homered on the next pitch to make it 4-0 and extend his postseason hitting streak to 10 games. He was selected the series MVP.
Marcum finished the first, ending his postseason 0-3 with a 14.90 ERA.
Furcal homered off Chris Narveson with two outs in the second and Pujols followed with a drive to left field to give St. Louis a 6-4 lead.
Holliday then singled, Freese doubled and the Brewers intentionally walked Yadier Molina with one out. Nick Punto hit a sacrifice fly and pinch-hitter Allen Craig singled in two more runs off LaTroy Hawkins to make it 9-4.
Yuniesky Betancourt's RBI double in the fourth cut the lead to 9-5, but Milwaukee fell apart in the fifth with three errors in a span of two plays.
Pinch-hitter Adron Chambers' sacrifice fly gave St. Louis an 11-5 lead in the fifth. But the focus was on Pujols when he was slow to get up in the bottom of the inning.
La Russa came out to check on his star, who gripped his right forearm and had a brief limp, but stayed in the game. He looked better, contributing a two-out RBI single in the eighth for the final margin.