Monday October 17th, 2011

MILWAUKEE -- A standing ovation had greeted him in the batter's box, but now Prince Fielder looked confused. Umpires' arms arose around the field. Someone had called time -- who wasn't immediately obvious -- and the sold-out Miller Park crowd continued to serenade the Brewers' All-Star first baseman. Whether it was an enticement for him to re-sign as a free agent or just a farewell tribute thanking him for his service, didn't quite matter at the moment, given the numbers on the scoreboard.

The Cardinals were, after all, leading 12-6 in the eighth inning and this in all likelihood would be Fielder's final at-bat in a Brewers uniform, but it soon became clear that the opposing first baseman, none other than the Cardinals' Albert Pujols, was the man who asked for the stoppage in play, a tribute from one worthy combatant to another. ("That's cool," Fielder said later. "I appreciate it.")

In that at bat, however, Fielder grounded out weakly to second, finishing the National League Championship Series on a 1-for-14 skid after starting 3-for-6 with two home runs.

Pujols, meanwhile, Fielder's counterpart as a corner-infield cornerstone in the NL Central, never slowed down, going 11-for-23 with two homers in the series -- including a solo shot on Sunday night in the four-run third inning the Cardinals used to break the Brewers' back -- as St. Louis advanced to its third World Series in the last eight seasons, all with Pujols as its focal point.

"Albert's a truly great player," St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said. "People sometimes take that to mean that he's a great stat-producing player. Albert is a great winning player. You watch him play defense, run the bases -- he does so much to help a club win."

Both first basemen will hit the free agent market this winter, but while Fielder's days with the Brewers are likely over, Pujols prolongs his tenure in St. Louis for -- at least -- four to seven more games.

"I would hope this would be a hard environment for him to leave," Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt said.

The Cardinals, after all, had their backs against the walls late in the summer. The low point came on Aug. 24 when, after getting swept by the Dodgers, they were 10 games behind the Brewers in the division and 10½ games behind the Braves in the wild-card standings.

"We've got a group of guys with some talent, desire and a ton of heart," said Cardinals third baseman David Freese, who was named NLCS MVP after batting .545 with three homers.

So long were the odds -- and the Cardinals didn't clinch the wild card until the final day of the regular season -- the club didn't even send advance scouts on the road to report back on other playoff opponents until the postseason actually started.

"It is a tremendous accomplishment for our team, a great job by Tony, and I give our GM, John Mozeliak, all the credit in the world for making the deals that got us here," DeWitt said. "We wouldn't here without those deals."

The most important offseason deal was the signing of Lance Berkman in the offseason on a one-year contract for $8 million that seemed high for a player who did not appear to be aging well. His rebound from a poor 2010 season was so great, however, that he ranked fourth in the league in OPS, a monster year for which he earned NL Comeback Player of the Year honors.

And the most important in-season deal was the Cardinals' participation in a three-team trade in which they dealt their centerfielder of the future, Colby Rasmus, and received starter Edwin Jackson and relievers Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepcyzynski, the latter of whom was awarded the win Sunday after throwing 2 1/3 innings, the longest outing of any Cardinals pitcher on the night.

"We have been aggressive when we've had opportunities to be in the postseason," DeWitt said, "so it really wasn't driven by Albert's maybe, potential last season. We're still hopeful of signing him, and you look at each year as it plays out. If we have a chance to get into the postseason, you go for it."

The two relievers in particular were an integral part of the Cardinals' series win. In the NLCS, the starters pitched only 24 1/3 innings with a 7.03 ERA; the relievers threw 28 2/3 innings with a 1.88 ERA.

"The thing that overwhelmed me was that our relievers stood out so much," La Russa said. "I figured our starters would at least get us into the last third of the game."

No game typified this unexpected postseason quite like the Game 6 finale, in a month defined by its short starts, frequent pitching changes and big home runs.

The two starting pitchers, Milwaukee's Shaun Marcum and St. Louis' Jackson, combined to throw three innings, and this year's World Series entrants -- the Cardinals and the Rangers -- received a total of one win from their starters in the teams' respective league championship series. But while the Cardinals relievers threw seven innings of two-run ball, the Brewers' bullpen failed at an inopportune time, yielding six runs in its eight innings of work.

While teams hit three or more homers in only 7.6 percent of their games this season, both clubs accomplished that feat by the third inning . Put another way, in the regular season batters averaged a home run every 36.4 at-bats; in the playoffs players have averaged a homer every 26.8 at bats.

"It's just an improbable postseason," said La Russa, who has won six league pennants and two World Series as a manager. "I've never seen anything like it. It's very weird to be successful when your starters aren't doing what they're supposed to be doing."

The game started self-destructing early on for the Brewers. Manager Ron Roenicke chose to start Marcum, even though he had been struggling for the better part of a month, and within 12 minutes from the first pitch a reliever was throwing in the bullpen and two minutes after that Freese parked a home run to left for an early 4-0 lead.

The Brewers answered with home runs of their own from Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks and Jonathan Lucroy, trailing only 5-4 after two innings. That's when Pujols led off the top of the third by crushing an upper-deck shot and the tide starting turning for the Cardinals. They finished that frame with a three-inning line score of 4-1-4, which, coincidentally, is the area code of Milwaukee.

Fielder may have left Miller Park as a member of the home team for a final time, but Pujols is heading back to St. Louis, still a Cardinal, and with several more games to play.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.