PHILADELPHIA -- No longer are the Cardinals just on a late run. Put away those "playing with house money" and "nothing to lose" notions. Hopes have turned to expectations. St. Louis is playing for a pennant.
The Cardinals secured their first postseason series win since the 2006 World Series with a sensational 1-0 victory over the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park on Friday night. The win gave them a 3-2 National League Division Series triumph over the league's best regular-season team, and moved them into the NL Championship Series for a delicious matchup with their Central Division rivals, the Brewers.
Rafael Furcal and Skip Schumaker teamed up to get a single run for the Redbirds before the game's first out, and a magnificent Chris Carpenter tossed a three-hit shutout to make it stand up. Carpenter, with some help from an airtight defense, outdueled his old friend and former teammate Roy Halladay en route to his sixth postseason win in 11 career starts.
Five days earlier, Carpenter had labored through three innings on short rest. On full rest, in one of the biggest games of his life, there was no getting to the 36-year-old.
The win was the Cardinals' 26th in 37 games since late August, when they began a run from 10 1/2 games back to the NL Wild Card. They trailed in the series, 1-0 and 2-1, before winning the last two games against old nemesis Roy Oswalt and two-time Cy Young winner Halladay. The common narrative has been about how whatever the Cardinals achieve from here on out, it's gravy, a bonus on top of a fun season.
The common narrative no longer really holds. Four wins from the World Series, the Cardinals are thinking big.
"I understand we had some struggles during parts of the regular season, but you look at this team and, my goodness, we've got as good an everyday lineup as you can run out there," said Lance Berkman. "We've got several starters that are capable of shutting people down, and sort of a revamped and solid bullpen. And we're playing good. That's a good combination."
St. Louis advances to the NLCS for the first time since 2006 and the 10th time in franchise history. The Cardinals will be aiming for the 18th NL title in franchise history, playing a rematch of the 1982 World Series, which St. Louis won in seven games.
The Phils' ace of aces was brilliant on Friday and surely deserved better. But against Carpenter, long the Cards' No. 1 horse, Halladay simply had no room for error.
"Any time you have Roy or any of those guys on the other side, it's like 'Carp' and [Adam] Wainwright for us," said Albert Pujols. "You know those guys are going to keep you in the game. They might have one inning that they have a tough inning, but besides that, they don't make too many mistakes. And, obviously, Carp didn't make too many today."
Furcal led off the game with a triple to center field. Halladay got ahead of Schumaker, the next batter, 0-2, but couldn't finish him off. Schumaker got the count full and ground out a 10-pitch at-bat that culminated with a go-ahead double to right field.
Schumaker has enjoyed a fine career in St. Louis, but it's entirely possible that his at-bat against Halladay will be his baseball epitaph. He said he would have no problem if that is the case.
"I'm OK with that," Schumaker said. "Doc Halladay is a guy out there where, early in the game, you just want to put the bat on the ball. The infield was back, so I was just trying to get it through. He threw me some of the toughest pitches I think I've ever seen."
That was all Halladay would allow. It was enough.
That's because for this night, the Carpenter of 2011 looked like the man who pitched the Cardinals to the 2006 World Series title. He was efficient, aggressive and precise, overwhelming a very good lineup for all nine innings. Four of Carpenter's last seven starts, including two against the Phillies, have ended in shutouts.
"You know what I saw tonight actually? I saw Carpenter pitch a good game," said Phillies manager Charlie Manuel. "I saw Carpenter throw breaking balls, changeups and fastballs. And I saw him move the ball around, and he pitched a real good game."
Nick Punto, a surprise starter at second base, had a superb game, as did Furcal at shortstop. Furcal made the play of the game, getting Carlos Ruiz with a dazzling pick and throw on a one-out grounder in the eighth.
Yadier Molina also made a critical play for Carpenter, throwing out Chase Utley as the Phillies' second baseman tried to steal in the sixth. Utley, a superb baserunner and basestealer, took off on a curveball, and Molina still threw him out with the heart of the order coming up and one out.
"It was tough," Molina said, "but I was ready for it. I was looking for that, because I know Utley."
Carpenter even got a couple of breaks. With two on and two out in the fourth, Raul Ibanez hit a deep fly to right field, chasing Berkman to the track, but the veteran reeled it in. In the seventh, Carpenter looked for all the world to be pitching around Ryan Howard with no outs and no one on. He fell behind, 3-0, and left a cutter up and over the plate. Howard swung at the 3-0 cookie but flied out lazily to right field, and the famously fiery Carpenter grinned a little.
He knew he'd gotten away with one. It was that kind of night for Carpenter, who retired Howard again for the final out, and his defense, and it means there will be at least four more games in this memorable 2011 season. And maybe more than that.
"I think it's more determination this time around," said Game 4 hero David Freese. "When we 'snuck in' last time, it was joy. It was excitement. Now, we're having a great time, but we know what we've got to do. We've got to go into a tough place like Milwaukee and keep this train going. ... It definitely feels more real, because we're moving on."
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.