The St. Louis Cardinals' wild ride is headed to the World Series.
"It's kind of surreal that we're here," said third baseman David Freese, who took MVP honors in the series. "But this team deserves what we've been rewarded."
Freese hit a three-run homer in the first inning and manager Tony La Russa again turned to his brilliant bullpen for seven sturdy innings as St. Louis captured its 18th pennant with a 12-6 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers on Sunday night.
"For two weeks in August we started mugging games left and right and we had to say, hey, look, unless we go about this better, we're going to ruin everything we accomplished as far as respect," La Russa said. "And we started winning a little bit. And literally played every game like it was the last game of our life."
Trailing by 10½ games in the wild-card race on 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.
In a twist of fate, it was Philadelphia that helped them get in by completing a three-game sweep of the Braves.
Once in the postseason, Albert Pujols and the 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.
"I mean, you could have never known," Pujols said.
Freese, often overlooked in a lineup anchored by All-Stars, batted .545 with three homers and nine RBIs in the series.
It's been such a frenetic run, it seems fitting that a squirrel has become the team's unofficial mascot.
The rally squirrel started in the division series against Philadelphia when the furry rodent scampered across home plate during Game 4. Another squirrel was on the field before Game 5 when Carpenter shut out the Phillies.
Reliever Octavio Dotel carries a small, stuffed squirrel with him after a Philadelphia fan tossed it to him in jest, a tangible sign of where the Cardinals have come from.
"I lay in my bed thinking, 'Wow, we are in this position.' I cannot believe it personally. I can't believe where we are after the way we played the last month, and the way Atlanta played," Dotel said. "It's crazy to be where we are right now. I don't know how to explain that to you. The only thing I know is we're here and we're looking forward to keep winning games."
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.
"We had a lot of adversity, but we found a way," Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday said.
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 in the division.
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.
"I had to clear the throat once, but it was all right. I love these guys," said Fielder, a first-round draft pick in 2002. "I've been playing with most of them since I was 18. So this organization has been great to me."
The group of Fernando Salas, Marc Rzepczynski, 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 28 2-3 innings.
The most lasting image of this NLCS has been La Russa on the bullpen phone.
"He's a genius, isn't he?" said Motte, the fifth closer this year for the Cardinals.
St. Louis built an 11-5 lead before the biggest scare came when Pujols was shaken up after tagging out Braun in the fifth inning. The three-time MVP fell hard on his right forearm on a close play at first base.
"I got spiked. I didn't feel too good but as long as I can walk I'm playing in that game," Pujols said. "It's the postseason. Nothing hurts. You don't think about it. You think about making a play. If you got hurt, hey at least you got hurt trying something hard."
The Cardinals took control of this series beginning in Game 2 by jumping out to early leads and letting the bullpen lead the way.
La Russa called on his relievers 28 times in the NLCS and Jackson's start was the shortest of the postseason for the 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.
Freese gave his teammates credit while accepting the MVP award.
"I wish we could make eight or nine of these and give them to our bullpen. They're the reason why we won this series," he said.
Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks and Jonathan Lucroy all homered for the Brewers, who won a major league-best 57 home games at Miller Park this season and four straight in the postseason before losing Game 2 to the Cardinals.
The Brewers' biggest hitters — Braun, Fielder and Weeks — finished 1 for 12 in Game 6. 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.
"Obviously I envisioned us winning the World Series, but that didn't happen," Fielder said. "We had a great year as a team. Unfortunately we didn't get to where we wanted to go. But still some great moments and great memories in there. Like I said, this year has been awesome."
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.
"You can't get away with mistakes to them and we made way too many mistakes," manager Ron Roenicke said.
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 low throw. Marcum believed he had strike three on Pujols, who ended up walking.
Lance Berkman singled for the second hit in 18 career at-bats against Marcum to drive in the first run, and center fielder Nyjer Morgan made an ill-advised throw to third that let Berkman reach second.
Marcum saved a run by grabbing Holliday's dribbler 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.
"We believe, Freese said. "I think that's what you've got to do in this game. We got a group of guys with some talent, desire, and just a ton of heart."
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.