ST. LOUIS — The smell of champagne first hits the nose 15 feet from the locker room door. Matt Adams is double-fisting two Budweisers as Carlos Martinez blows on the foam as he pours beer into his water gun. That's crucial, you see, to proper loading. Michael Wacha launches a champagne bottle at the trash can five feet away, hitting his target easily. His back pocket is stuffed with two beer bottles, an easy reload of his liquid ammunition.
The Cardinals have this celebration thing down pat.
St. Louis has advanced to the NLCS each year since 2011 like clockwork. That's four straight seasons, two National League Championships and one World Series title. Broken hearts are littered from Los Angeles to Texas to Washington, D.C. The Cardinals are built for October, grown for October, and to the rest of the country, it has to be getting old. But in St. Louis, it's business as usual, the business of home runs and hard-throwing 20-somethings, of puddles of Anheuser-Busch products and corks littering the floor. There's no place like St. Louis in October, and no wonder the rest of the country hates these guys. Three years ago, they were midwestern underdogs. Now, they've morphed into villains.
But for all the magic of Tuesday, when Matt Adams belted a three-run home run off of the unhittable Clayton Kershaw, sealing his team's 3-2 win, this makes sense. Calling it magic is almost a slight. This is formula, plain and simple: for success, for hatred.
Of the nine players in the Cardinals' starting lineup Tuesday, St. Louis drafted six. Of the seven relievers and substitutions who subsequently took the field, five came up through the Cardinals' minor league system. Even St. Louis' manager, Mike Matheny, played at Busch Stadium, albeit Busch II, which closed in 2005. And so as the alcohol flowed and sprayed on Tuesday evening, the men who perhaps deserved the most to be doused were on the periphery: general manager John Mozeliak and team president Bill DeWitt III.
They built a group that fits together, that has no glaring weakness. In fact, the area in which the team most struggled all season, hitting for power, was the key to the Cardinals knocking off the Dodgers in four games. Tricked you, the box score reads, we can club 'em out of the park, too.
"You look at what these guys have been able to do, [and] you take a Matt Adams and see his track record, and even though he didn't throw up huge power numbers this year, he has in the past and can," Matheny said. "There's no reason to say that it's gone anywhere."
But as the Cardinals laid waste to at least some of their regular-season criticisms, the Dodgers' shortcomings magnified. Kershaw started off stellar as always on Tuesday, pitching a no-hitter into the fourth inning and allowing just one hit through six. But on just three days rest, L.A.'s ace likely should have been on a pitch count. In theory, he was, except when things seemed to be humming into the seventh inning, the eye test trumped the numbers.
That's what happens when just the mention of your bullpen strikes glee into the hearts of opposing batters, when its 3.80 regular-season ERA is the worst of any playoff team. That leaves Dodgers manager Don Mattingly with a constant tug of war: take Kershaw out too early, and the relievers could blow it; leave him in, and his arm might turn to Jell-O. On Tuesday, just as he did last Friday, Mattingly bet wrong.
"Is anybody better, even on short rest?" Mattingly asked after the game. "Even where he was at that point?"
The answer, most likely, was no, and that's what made the difference in this series. Kershaw, who gave up 39 earned runs over the course of the regular season, allowed 11 to the Cardinals over the course of 12 2/3 innings.
The road ahead for St. Louis won't be easy. As early as Tuesday afternoon, the team was already discussing contingency plans if ace Adam Wainwright is unable to pitch in his next scheduled start. That's hardly an auspicious note upon which to begin the NLCS. Despite collecting all three saves in the NLDS, the rollercoaster that is closer Trevor Rosenthal should also give the team pause, as might the concern that his power could disappear as suddenly as it materialized.
Even so, this is a team that's won in spite of injuries and inexperience. Its postseason heroes of late have been the likes of David Freese, Pete Kozma and Wacha, all relative unknowns before their respective October breakouts, and the Cardinals have plenty of candidates for their next postseason darling. There's Marco Gonzales, the rookie who's been solid in relief, and Shelby Miller, Tuesday's starter who was benched for the 2013 playoffs. There's Adams, as well, who got a taste of playing the hero on Tuesday and claimed that his feet never touched the ground as he circled the bases.
"This doesn't happen every year," Miller said after the game. "This kind of thing never gets old."
To his first point: Okay. He's trained to say so, even though over the course of his young career, it has. And to his second: Good. It shouldn't.