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Surprise NL Champs Have Advantage In World Series

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ST. LOUIS (AP) - That chant of “Happy Flight! Happy Flight!” has been exceptionally joyful lately for the St. Louis Cardinals.

They celebrated in Philadelphia after knocking off the favored Phillies in the National League division series, then hushed a packed crowd in Milwaukee and sprayed champagne in the visitor’s clubhouse after winning the franchise’s 18th pennant.

The clinching blowout victory over the Brewers on Sunday night was the 15th consecutive time the Cardinals had won before heading for the airport, a run they’ll risk against the American League champion Texas Rangers.

The wild-card Cardinals have the home-field advantage for the first time, thanks to Prince Fielder’s three-run homer in the National League’s All-Star victory. They’re underdogs against the Rangers, making their second straight trip to the World Series.

It’s nothing new for this late-blooming team that was boosted by several trade deadline pickups.

All those getaway victories fueled an improbable surge for a team that trailed Atlanta by 10 1/2 games for the wild card on Aug. 25. Entering the final month, they were in serious danger of finishing out of the postseason for the fourth time in five years since winning the 2006 World Series.

The Cardinals were afterthoughts in ’06, too, after winning just 83 games. Albert Pujols, Chris Carpenter, Yadier Molina, Skip Schumaker and injured pitcher Adam Wainwright, who got the last out in both the NLCS and World Series, are holdovers from that team.

“When you get to the postseason anything can happen,” Pujols said. “We got to the postseason and we were riding hot. We’re swinging the bats pretty well and the bullpen has been unbelievable.”

The momentum was just enough to overtake the fading Braves on the final day of the season. Fortified by Rafael Furcal, a hit in the leadoff slot and at shortstop, starter Edwin Jackson and relievers Marc Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel, they haven’t played like plucky underdogs in October.

Even as it’s happening, players find themselves shaking their heads in wonder. Clutching a lucky stuffed squirrel during the postgame shindig in Milwaukee, Dotel said when he goes to bed he thinks, “Wow, we are in this position!”

“It’s crazy to be where we are right now. I don’t know how to explain that to you. The only thing I know is we’re here and we’re looking forward to keep winning games,” he said.

Speaking of lucky live squirrels, the Cardinals may not be totally caught up. The team trapped four squirrels, releasing them in a wildlife preserve, but doesn’t believe it has nabbed the squirrel that has been embraced as a good luck totem after distracting Phillies pitcher Roy Oswalt when it scooted across home plate during Game 4.

Both teams have their rotations aligned for the World Series, with St. Louis ace Chris Carpenter set to oppose Texas 16-game winner C.J. Wilson in the opener Wednesday night. Carpenter was bothered by elbow irritation after his last start but has been pronounced good to go.

The state of the bullpen could be a larger consideration given the relievers had more innings than the starters in the NLCS. Carpenter was the member of the rotation who lasted long enough to qualify for the victory, gutting out five innings in Game 3.

Jason Motte didn’t allow a hit in 4 2-3 innings and had two saves, and rookie Lance Lynn, Rzepczynski and Dotel each won a game for a unit that was 3-0 with a 1.88 ERA over 28 2-3 innings.

“It’s one of those things, when the phone rings we get ready to go,” Motte said. “It doesn’t matter who it is, what inning, how long. We’re ready to go at any time.”

Anticipation of another heavy load will probably lead to the Cardinals going with a 12-man pitching staff and an eight-man bullpen in the World Series.

Unlike Cardinals vs. Brewers, a sometimes heated rivalry during the season, there’s almost zero history between the Cardinals and Rangers. The teams have met only once in an interleague series in Texas in 2004, with Michael Young the Rangers’ lone holdover and Carpenter, Pujols — and of course, manager Tony La Russa — remaining from St. Louis.

Though the Rangers have never played in St. Louis, Nelson Cruz participated in the Home Run Derby at the 2009 All-Star Game at Busch Stadium. Rangers lefty Darren Oliver played for the Cardinals in 1999.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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