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Miracle run continues for St. Louis Cardinals

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Miracle run continues for St. Louis Cardinals

From Comcast SportsNetMILWAUKEE (AP) -- An afterthought in early September, the St. Louis Cardinals needed every last win just to reach the postseason. Now, this wild ride is headed to the World Series. "We believe," third baseman David Freese said. "I think that's what you've got to do in this game. We've got a group of guys with some talent, desire, and just a ton of heart." Freese hit a three-run homer in the first and manager Tony La Russa turned again to his brilliant bullpen for seven sturdy innings as St. Louis captured its 18th pennant with a 12-6 victory over the bumbling Milwaukee Brewers on Sunday night. Albert Pujols and the wild-card 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 to earn series MVP honors. Looking for its second title in six seasons, St. Louis opens the World Series at home Wednesday night with ace Chris Carpenter on the mound against the AL champion Texas Rangers. "Your goal is to win it," Pujols said. "Nobody talks about second place. Everybody talks about who wins it. That's our main goal." Trailing by 10 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 into the postseason by completing a three-game sweep of the Braves. "Improbable, incredible, overwhelming," La Russa said. "This one here has its own mark, because coming from that far back is historic I think. That's what they tell me. And having to win on the road, Philadelphia, these guys." Now, 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. What a relief! "Well, it was crazy," outfielder Matt Holliday said. "We had a lot of adversity, but we found a way." 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. 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." Rafael Furcal and Pujols hit solo homers off Chris Narveson and St. Louis built a 9-4 lead by the time the bullpen took over for Edwin Jackson in the third inning. The group of Fernando Salas, Marc Rzepczynski, Octavio 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 biggest scare came when Pujols was shaken up after tagging out Braun in the fifth inning when he fell hard on his right forearm on a close play at first base. The three-time MVP was slow to get up, but stayed in the game. "I got spiked, and then (Rzepczynski) kind of stepped on my right knee, but it was a do-or-die play," Pujols said. "I'm glad, you know, we got the out." The Cardinals needed a shutout from Carpenter to beat the Phillies 1-0 in Game 5 of the NLDS, but 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 Cardinals 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-most 57 times at Miller Park this season and four straight in the postseason before losing Game 2 to the Cardinals. 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. 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. 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 time 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. Marcum was finished after the first, ending his postseason 0-3 with a 14.90 ERA. "They were some kind of team in that first inning. We couldn't get away with anything," Roenicke said. "We didn't make good pitches. But we just never had a chance to get into our comfort zone." Furcal homered off Chris Narveson in the second and Pujols hit a drive to left in the third to give St. Louis a 6-4 lead. Holliday then singled, Freese doubled and the Brewers intentionally walked Yadier Molina with one out. Nick Punto hit a sacrifice fly and pinch-hitter Allen Craig singled in two more runs off LaTroy Hawkins to make it 9-4. Yuniesky Betancourt's RBI double in the fourth cut the lead to 9-5, but Milwaukee fell apart in the fifth with three errors in a span of two plays. First, Hart bobbled Freese's single in right field, allowing Holliday to reach third. Holliday scored on the next play when third baseman Jerry Hairston Jr. committed two errors. He booted Molina's grounder and then flipped the ball out of his glove through Weeks' legs at second. "They outplayed us," Roenicke said. "They're a good team and they outplayed us." Pinch-hitter Adron Chambers' sacrifice fly gave St. Louis an 11-5 lead in the fifth. In the bottom of the inning, Braun's groundout cut the lead to 11-6, but the focus was on Pujols when he was slow to get up. La Russa came out to check on his star, who gripped his right forearm and had a brief limp, but stayed in the game. He looked better later, contributing a two-out RBI single in the eighth for the final margin. Jackson allowed Hart and Weeks to lead off the first two innings with homers and Lucroy added a two-run shot to cut the lead to 5-4 in the second. St. Louis answered back with four more runs, keyed when Jackson was pulled for Craig, who delivered his two-run single. Salas caught a break in the third when Jay made a leaping catch of Fielder's drive at the wall in right-center. Jay added another spectacular grab, crashing into the padding in the ninth with Motte on the mound. One out later, the celebration was on. "It's kind of surreal that we're here," Freese said. "But this team deserves what we've been rewarded." NOTES: St. Louis joins the Dodgers and Giants with 18 World Series appearances, second only to the Yankees (40). ... It was Milwaukee's 26th loss at Miller Park this season. Marcum started 13 of those games. ... Furcal has hit six of his nine homers this season against the Brewers. ... Marcum gave up 34 runs over his final 34 innings dating to Sept. 9. ... The Miller Park roof was closed with the game-time temperature 55 degrees and a strong autumn wind blowing throughout the day. Inside, it was 67 degrees.

Nerds in Sports DeadTalk: Walking Dead S8 E1 "Mercy"

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Nerds in Sports DeadTalk: Walking Dead S8 E1 "Mercy"

From the makers of the Game of Thrones Recaps, Nerds in Sports returns weekly breakdowns for the latest season of “The Walking Dead.” Michael Piff is joined by Nerds in Sports n00bs Scott Changnon and Matt Buckman to recap the 100th episode and Season 8 Premiere of the zombie phenomenon.

Our DeadTalk trio give their general reactions to TWD’s return, Rick’s attack on Negan’s camp, what’s with the time jumps, Weird Al?, and what’s next for the survivors. We also give bold predictions for the season, our reasons for still watching after 100 episodes, and open the floor to questions from listeners. React and ask along by tweeting @NerdsInSports!

Blackhawks mailbag: Defensive challenges and happy campers

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USA TODAY

Blackhawks mailbag: Defensive challenges and happy campers

The Blackhawks entered this season with the same mantra they have countless others: get off to a good start and save yourself a point chase at the end of the season.

My first season on the beat was probably the Blackhawks’ best lesson lately on what happens when you’re scrambling late; they just about missed the playoffs, losing to Detroit in the regular-season finale and needing Minnesota to beat Dallas to get into the postseason. And while the overall results have been a mixed bag, their opening record (5-2-2) isn’t shabby.

Still, there are questions regarding where the Blackhawks are and where they’re heading. To that end (yeah, we’re finally getting to the point of this whole spiel), we bring you this week’s mailbag:

The Blackhawks’ happiness with Tanner Kero was partly because of Kero’s work last season. But in terms of comparing to other centers, Kero’s emergence had more to do with replacing Dennis Rasmussen than it did Marcus Kruger – Kero re-signed with the Blackhawks around the same time talks reportedly went awry between the team and Rasmussen. Anyway, back to Kero. I don’t think it’s so much what he’s not doing as what Tommy Wingels is doing in that fourth-line spot. The Blackhawks originally envisioned Wingels at wing but he has previous experience at center and his work there has been pretty good. Saturday night’s game certainly helps, be it for Wingels alone or keeping that fourth line together (he, John Hayden and Lance Bouma, who scored the game-winner). Don’t be surprised if there’s some rotation there, though.

Maybe, although either of those guys will likely still be rotating in/out with another player. Just depends on how much the Blackhawks want those guys playing constantly (I would guess that would be the case with rookie Matthew Highmore more than Hinostroza).

We all know this contract, all know how it hamstrings the Blackhawks for a while. But in the immediate future, what can you do? Fellow scribe Mark Lazerus has asked a few times about Seabrook’s place in the lineup and coach Joel Quenneville has demurred. Granted, we’re guessing general manager Stan Bowman doesn’t want Seabrook out of the lineup, either. Seabrook’s leadership skills are tremendous; to a man, the Blackhawks will say how vocal he is. His past work, especially in the playoffs, speaks for itself. It depends on how things progress as the season goes but I don’t foresee Seabrook coming out of the lineup right now. Speaking of Seabrook…

Highly doubt it. The asking price won’t be just one guy for another. And with any trade talk I remind everyone to see a player’s NMC status. Seabrook has a full no movement clause.

Nope, he’s not going anywhere, as the traveling media confirmed with Quenneville on Monday afternoon in Las Vegas. I had to be reminded that DeBrincat was nearing that deadline on Sunday, his status not coming up in conversations with Quenneville and Stan Bowman like it did when Brandon Saad made the team at 19. DeBrincat has made such an impression that it was going to take something extraordinary for the Blackhawks to reassign him. DeBrincat has found his place in the lineup and whether or not he’s been scoring he’s been good. So here, he remains.

You don’t trade him. The Blackhawks are where they are right now due in large part to their goaltending, especially Crawford. There have been, what, two games in which the Blackhawks dominated? So no, you don’t trade Crawford.

We’re quite a while from the trade deadline, so let’s tap the breaks on any talk about what the Blackhawks may do several months from now. As far as Murphy’s current status, no, I don’t believe his job is in jeopardy. Again, part of this is the eight-defensemen situation. But it’s also getting Murphy more ingrained in the system. I talked to Dave Tippett, Murphy’s former coach, a few weeks ago. He said, “we put him into situations he may not have been ready for [with Arizona], but he always continued to improve in those situations. He still has a lot of growing to do but he’s a very dedicated athlete and I think there’s a lot of upside there.” It’s easy to look at who the Blackhawks traded away for Murphy and Murphy’s contract and say, “yeah, he should be an everyday guy.” He should be at some point but considering what I mentioned above, I’m not surprised he isn’t right now. Speaking of defensemen rotating in and out of the lineup…

Yeah, I’m still not a big fan of the eight-defensemen set, for the reason you just mentioned. I wrote about the Blackhawks’ defensive juggling act on Sunday and, while I still think it’s tough to do I believe the Blackhawks will stay with it for a while. I list some reasons in Sunday’s story, which is linked above. So far (judging from outward appearances) the defensemen seem to be on board with the changes. I’m just curious to see how long they can keep the balance to where no one is sitting too long. That’s always the challenge.

Signing Cody Franson was part of the short-term plan regarding the long-term injured reserve funds. I think the Blackhawks just let things play out now for a while. You’re not going to make a move based on the first month of the season.

Yeah, someday I will stop writing about the power play’s woes but it won’t be today. I personally don’t think it’s the personnel. Whenever we talk about this it’s usually the same culprits: lack of movement, not enough shots and net-front traffic. I still say a strong penalty kill is more important and if the Blackhawks’ 5-on-5 scoring increases the power-play concerns fade. But it has cost them, so it’s certainly a concern.

I wouldn’t take the stern expressions as a sign of unhappiness. I’ve seen them plenty of times arriving at an arena looking like that; just focused before a game.

Going to go with a B-plus mainly because they came out of those first eight games with a pretty solid record. Granted, goaltending deserves a massive pat on the back for that. But it’s still early and I still figure the lines will get rolling at some point. Penalty kill has been very good and power play absolutely has to get better.