NLDS: Clubs (er, Cubs) Go to NLCS

Believe it. The Chicago Cubs have clubbed their way into the National League Championship Series. How long it takes the St. Louis Cardinals to recover from this one is left best to the crystal ball hustlers and card tricksters.

How long it takes before these Clubs wake up from this peculiar dream — they've never before clinched any title in their home playpen, and the way they did it could get them charged with human rights violations — might be left best to the same.

Game 4 of their now-finished division series was a close enough triumph, but there isn't a soul in Wrigleyville who'll tell you the Cardinals had anything like a shot at surviving one more day. Not when Kyle Schwarber led off the bottom of the seventh Tuesday afternoon and hit one so far out of sight to produce the eventual 6-4 final they'll be days if not weeks trying to figure whether it landed on the rooftops, in the Chicago Tribune's newsroom, or in Lake Michigan.

Only one of the Cubs' 6 runs scored on anything smaller than a bomb, and that was starting pitcher Jason Hammel, of all people, rapping a first-pitch, two-out single to send Starlin Castro home in the bottom of the second, cutting an early 2-0 Cardinals lead in half. As if to remind his pitcher that a measly RBI single is all well and good but, Javier Baez with two on (including Schwarber) came up next and hit one into the right field bleachers. Also on the first pitch. Not to mention his first at-bat in his first post-season spot in the starting lineup.

How happy were the Cubs to be home after splitting two in St. Louis? They hit 9 bombs in the two Wrigley games. That was only 14 percent of the bombs the Cardinals surrendered on the road all year. The Cubs also hit 10 bombs total in the set and seven by seven different players, the latter tying a division series record. And Anthony Rizzo, their very viable MVP candidate, went deep when needed most, hitting a two-out, two-strike Siegrist service into the right field bleachers to bust a 4-all tie in the bottom of the sixth.

And how miserable must the Cardinals be, going home after having come in as the only 100-win team in baseball this season, having been unable to do in this division series what they did so remarkably during the season — overcoming a crowd of injuries to key men.

They played this series with a half-available Yadier Molina, whose thumb issue made it impossible for him to hit though not to catch, and Matheny kept Molina out of Game Four's starting lineup intending to send him in as a late defensive replacement alone. Molina may be the soul of the Cardinals, and having to work with him at half-strength hurt. With Molina behind the plate this season, the Cardinals had a .659 winning percentage. With his sub Tony Cruz behind the plate, they were a .500 club.

But the real blow was probably losing Carlos Martinez and his 9.2 K/9 rate. It held up the Cardinals' none-too-thick rotation only too clearly. Adam Wainwright missed most of the season with an Achilles tendon tear and did yeoman's work out of the bullpen just to contribute, but face it: the Cardinals aren't half as powerful unless Wainwright's in the rotation.

Cardinals Game 4 starter John Lackey found himself in the hole after Baez's bomb and with the end of a somewhat remarkable streak of his own. He'd had a streak of 74 2/3 postseason innings, beginning with the 2002 Angels, without surrendering a home run. The longest such streak: Whitey Ford's 82 1/3 from 1956-1962.

"Regardless of who we didn't have," Matheny said after it was over, "we felt that the next man up was going to get the job done."

From the fourth on it became a game of bullpens, with the only worry really being whether either Cubs manager Joe Maddon or Cardinals manager Mike Matheny should be caught with their pants down should the game end up going extras. Perhaps Schwarber took care of that issue once and for all when he turned Kevin Siegrist's 1-1 meatball into an ICBM.

Seven Cub relievers kept the Cardinals to two runs while striking out thirteen hitters Tuesday. The Cub bullpen's 3.38 season ERA wasn't exactly the kind that lights up the headlines, but it wasn't terrible, either. In this division series they looked like a collection of marksmen. Not bad for a patch quilt of failed starters, ex-closers, and a guy who was released twice over the season.

But then these Cubs are daring to think in terms not tied to their own haunted past. Hell, didn't I see someone suggest that to these Cubs the past is twelve days before Kris Bryant's April call-up?

"I think it validates what we're about," Maddon said in the middle of the celebration. "I think it gives our fan base hope for the future regarding, they're not waiting for something bad to happen all of the time. Something good is on the horizon, not something bad. Hopefully that's going to be the takeaway from all of this."

Shades of the 2004 Boston Red Sox.

"I had to pinch myself," said Cubs president Theo Epstein — who just so happens to have finished the remaking/remodeling that sent those Red Sox into immortality. "It's not enough that you're watching guys who were in instructional league last year hitting balls over the scoreboard in the NLDS, but it has to be the first time we played the freaking Cardinals in the playoffs."

Played them and rapped them around like the kids who'd gotten fed up with the neighborhood bullies persecuting them. The 2004 Red Sox delighted in calling themselves the Idiots. These Cubs like to call themselves young and dumb. Young, dumb, and powerful. They scored 20 runs all series long and 15 of them scored on home runs. That kind of young and dumb Chicago can live with.

"We're trying to win baseball games," says David Ross, who isn't exactly young or dumb himself. "I'm not worried about what happened last year or ten years ago or a hundred years ago. I'm here to win ball games. Whatever the history is ... it doesn't matter to me."

They'll need to keep that attitude going forward. No matter whom they meet in the League Championship Series.

But for now Chicago would like to say, "Let us have our fun!" As if to emphasis the point, the Wrigley Field crowd stayed in the ballpark for hours after the game ended. And nobody was in any big hurry to chase them out.

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