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.
High School Lites had a busy show as it was the final week of the regular season for IHSA boys basketball Class 3A and 4A. The Class 1A and 2A playoffs also tipped in boys basketball as the show has some thrilling regional titles that were decided in the final minute. And finally, the girls basketball Class 1A and 2A state semifinals were played on Friday as the state's top teams played in Bloomington.
Be sure to follow us on Twitter @NBCSPreps for the latest news and scores for IHSA basketball.
Here are Three Things to Watch when the Blackhawks take on the Columbus Blue Jackets tonight on NBC Sports Chicago and streaming live on the NBC Sports app. Coverage begins at 5:30 p.m. with Blackhawks Pregame Live.
1. One big reunion.
The Blackhawks will square off with the Blue Jackets for the first time since Oct. 7, which was the second game of the season. In that game, they won 5-1 led by Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad, each of whom scored a goal and added an assist.
Of course, that was the first game since the offseason trade that sent Artemi Panarin to Columbus and Saad back to Chicago, along with Anton Forsberg. Artem Anisimov, of course, was part of the original deal that sent Saad to Columbus in 2015, so there are a lot of emotional ties between the two teams.
Forsberg didn't get a chance to face the Blue Jackets in the first meeting, but there's a chance he will this time with it being the second of a back-to-back and Jean-Francois Berube getting the start in Friday's 3-1 win over San Jose.
2. Panarin and Kane bromance.
The emotions of a difficult break-up have probably died down by now, but Panarin and Kane gave us this moment at center ice during pregame warmups in their first game against each other and it hit Chicago right in the feels:
Artemi Panarin on what was said between he and Patrick Kane at center ice during warmups: “He said ‘I miss you’ and I said ‘I miss you too.’— Charlie Roumeliotis (@CRoumeliotis) October 8, 2017
Panarin has spent enough time apart from Kane for people to realize how big of a star he is in his own right, leading the Blue Jackets in all three scoring categories: goals (17), assists (32) and points (49).
He hasn't gone more than three games this season without recording a point, and is looking to extend his point streak to four games, which would tie a season high.
3. Struggling Blue Jackets special teams.
The Blue Jackets got off to a great start but are barely clinging onto a wild card spot going into Saturday's game, and a big reason for that slide is their lack of success on special teams. Usually one can pick up the slack for the other, but they've been brutal in both departments.
The Blue Jackets are 0-for-9 on the power play in their past five games and are ranked 31st overall, converting on only 14.1 percent of their opportunities. They also have own the 27th-ranked penalty kill with a 76.3 percent success rate.
So if there's an area the Blackhawks can exploit, it's that. But, you know, still be mindful of that Russian winger's one-timer from the faceoff circle.