LA Ready For Time Off After Polishing Off Cards

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Rafael Furcal shrugged his shoulders to his ears, hoping to lessen the chill from the ice bucket being dumped over his head.

Yeah, right.

Even after the endless dousings of champagne and beer from teammates, the frigid water left Furcal with a dazed-but-happy look, as if his mind was trying to comprehend what had just happened.

The same could be said about his team.

Relishing the underdog role all series, the Dodgers made quicker-than-expected work of St. Louis to sweep into the National League Championship Series for the second straight year.

Closing it out with an easy-looking 5-1 win on Saturday, Los Angeles became the third team to ever sweep the Cardinals from the playoffs.

Methodical, decisive and, yes, a bit surprising _ even for them.

"To sweep the Cardinals, it just doesn't happen," Dodgers third baseman Casey Blake said. "I would have never guessed we would have swept them. It makes the champagne a little sweeter."

They'll have plenty of time to savor it.

The NLCS doesn't start until Thursday, giving Los Angeles a welcome break. No need to rejigger the rotation, worry about who's going to be healthy or not. Just time to rest and look ahead to what might be while the Phillies and Rockies play in the Colorado snow in the other NL division series.

"This isn't where we want to be," Dodgers catcher Russell Martin said. "Everyone's thinking about the second plateau, then the World Series."

Getting to the first plateau wasn't supposed to be this easy.

St. Louis was the first team to clinch a playoff spot, sewing up the NL Central on Sept. 26. The Cardinals had the high-profile pitching staff, anchored by Cy Young front-runners Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright, and bashers Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday in the middle of their lineup.

St. Louis also had beaten the Dodgers five of seven times this season, 14 of the last 17 in St. Louis.

The Dodgers? They had to leave the champagne on ice for six games before clinching the NL West. Their pitching staff was void of an ace, filled with guys will little playoff experience. Their best hitter, Manny Ramirez, was stuck in a late-season funk.

Even with the NL's best record and home-field advantage, Los Angeles was considered the underdog.

The Dodgers just never believed it.

They got all the timely hits, the better of the pitching matchups and took advantage of one huge blunder by Holliday in Game 2 to reach the NLCS for the second straight season under manager Joe Torre.

"You've got to throw all that stuff out the window at this point," Torre said. "As much as the statistics tell you (what) you should do, you really can't make up for the emotion that goes on in these guys and what they will themselves to do."

It started with pitching.

Los Angeles countered St. Louis' big arms with an 11-year veteran who had never pitched in the postseason, a 21-year-old kid who had 13 career victories and another team's castoff.

Advantage ... St. Louis?

The Dodgers beat up on NL ERA leader Carpenter in Game 1, relied on its bullpen after Randy Wolf worked out of an early jam and lasted 3 2-3 innings.

Los Angeles had a little more trouble against 19-game winner Wainwright in the second game, managing one run in eight innings. The Dodgers stayed close behind rookie Clayton Kershaw, then escaped with a victory after Holliday's blunder in left opened the door for two runs with two outs in the ninth.

Then there was Vicente Padilla.

The right-hander was out of a job two months ago _ released by Texas _ and had never pitched in the playoffs during his 11-year career. He never gave the Cardinals much of a chance in Game 3, handcuffing them over seven innings in the series-clinching win.

For the series, Dodgers pitchers allowed four hits in 30 at-bats with runners in scoring position and kept Pujols in check, holding the NL MV front-runner to three singles and one RBI in the series.

"I've been saying from day one _ I'll take our pitchers over anyone else's," Blake said. "They've consistently come through in the biggest series."

The hitters weren't bad, either.

Los Angeles had 12 hits twice and seemed to get every key hit in the series, including run-scoring singles by reserves Ronnie Belliard and Mark Loretta off All-Star closer Ryan Franklin after Holliday's Game 2 flub.

Furcal, the Dodgers' leadoff hitter, was 7 for 12 in the series with two RBIs. Andre Ethier, after a dismal finish to the season, was 6 for 12 with two homers and three RBIs, finishing a single short of the cycle in the clinching game.

And Manny may be back to being Manny.

The enigmatic slugger served a 50-game drug suspension, had a decent stretch when he came back, then went 5-for-31 to close out the season with no homers after Sept. 18. Ramirez wasn't much of a factor in the first two games, going 1-for-8, then broke out with three hits and two RBIs in Game 3.

Not bad for a bunch of guys who weren't supposed to have much of a chance.

"If ignorance is indeed bliss, then you're looking at some blissful people," Wolf said. "They didn't know they were supposed to lose."

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