MILWAUKEE -- However far away the promised land might have looked earlier this year, that's how long ago August seems right now. A Cardinals team that was once on life support is now on top of the National League, and the struggles that steeled them may as well have been a decade ago.
With a 12-6 rout of the rival Brewers at Miller Park, St. Louis completed a six-game dismissal of Milwaukee in the National League Championship Series on Sunday night and advanced to the World Series to face the Texas Rangers. A franchise that has for so long defined excellence in the Senior Circuit will represent the league one more time.
It's the Cards' 18th NL pennant and their record sixth NL title in the League Championship Series era. They've been NL champions three times in the past eight years. St. Louis is aiming for its 11th World Series championship -- only the Yankees have more -- when the 107th Fall Classic begins on Wednesday night at Busch Stadium.
The Cardinals improved to 30-13 since Aug. 24. A team that was 10 1/2 games out of the NL Wild Card in late August, a team that watched these very Brewers run away and hide from them in the NL Central race, is the last team standing in the league.
Sunday's win took the key the elements of the Cardinals' earlier victories in this series and turned them up to 11. They didn't just get solid long-form bullpen work; they got seven gutty relief innings after Edwin Jackson's early exit, on a night when the ball was jumping out of Milwaukee's always hitter-friendly park. They didn't just hit for power; they blasted three homers among 14 hits, and erupted for nine runs in the first three innings.
The Redbirds jumped on the Brewers early, briefly let them back in the game, and then hammered them back into submission. And they did it all at a ballpark that was the toughest in the league for visiting clubs in 2011.
"They've been playing phenomenal baseball," said Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun. "They were clearly the better team in the series, and ultimately, I think the team that deserved to win, did win."
And so, of course, it means there will be one more "happy flight." For the 17th consecutive time, the Cardinals will board a plane on Monday having won their most recent game. The last time St. Louis traveled following a defeat was Aug. 3 at this very ballpark, coincidentally in another game which the Brewers hit Jackson hard.
And it just seems so very long ago. The Cards ticked off four straight wins after that defeat before slipping into a mid-August swoon. Three weeks later, when they came to, they'd been buried in the division and NL Wild Card races -- or so it appeared. Now those hard times take on sepia tones, as the trials that forged a league champion.
"You play a lot of important games, and you're in a lot of tight situations -- just like anything else, the more you do it, the more comfortable you get in those environments," said Lance Berkman. "That's exactly the type of situation you have to be in to win these playoff games. If you hoe in the garden enough, you get calluses. You kind of get immune to, not the pressure, but the situations that you find yourself in."
Sunday's win wasn't pretty, but it was emphatic. Facing changeup artist Shaun Marcum, St. Louis came out with a disciplined approach and chased him after one inning. Jon Jay singled to left with one out, Albert Pujols walked, and Berkman singled in the first run. Matt Holliday hit into a fielder's choice, slowing the momentum, but David Freese seized it right back.
Continuing a magnificent series in which he was named Most Valuable Player, Freese drilled a three-run homer to left field that made it 4-0. And though it would get close a couple of times, the Cardinals never relinquished the lead.
Corey Hart and Rafael Furcal traded solo homers for a 5-1 score, and the Brewers drilled two more long balls off Jackson in the second to make it a one-run game. In the next half-inning, though, the Cards took the game and series by the throat.
Pujols led off the third with a homer, providing breathing room in the form of a 6-4 edge. A single, a double and an intentional walk loaded the bases for Nick Punto, whose sacrifice fly made it 7-4. Faced with a chance to break the game open, La Russa lifted Jackson for pinch-hitter Allen Craig. It worked as Craig hit a slow grounder up the middle to score two runs, and the game was not close again.
"They get close, next thing you know, it's a game," said Chris Carpenter, St. Louis' Game 1 starter against Texas, "and our offense just continued to push all night long. ... And it got to the point where the other guys just couldn't push back."
That's not to say it was easy. On a night when it seemed the promotion was a home run ball for every fan, Cardinals pitchers had to work for it. They were up to the task.
Fernando Salas turned in two difficult but ultimately successful innings, striking out Hart to end the fourth with the tying run on deck. Marc Rzepczynski took it into the seventh before handing off to Lance Lynn, who continued his coming-out party by dispensing with the middle of the order in the eighth. Jason Motte closed it out, completing a series in which he got the final out of every win.
And with those last three outs, the Cards got a little closer to completing one of the more remarkable journeys in baseball history.
"I think this is right where we should be," Berkman said. "I think we have the best team in the National League."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.