As Cardinals raise the banner, Cubs crash the party

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As Cardinals raise the banner, Cubs crash the party

ST. LOUIS The last time the Cubs were at Busch Stadium, they dressed up the young players in ridiculous short skirts for the long flight to San Diego.

Laughter filled the clubhouse for last years rookie hazing. It didnt seem to matter that they had just lost two brutal one-run games, in a span of less than 28 hours, giving oxygen to their biggest rival.

It was almost hard to tell who was in charge. General manager Jim Hendry had been fired weeks before in a secret meeting with chairman Tom Ricketts. It was only a matter of time before manager Mike Quade would lose his job.

On Sept. 25, 2011, you should have checked the odds in Las Vegas on the Cardinals winning the World Series and bet everything.

Would you have predicted this? Theo Epstein running baseball operations for the Cubs, Albert Pujols playing for the Angels and Tony La Russa working for the commissioners office.

Almost seven months later, in front of a sellout crowd, the Cardinals raised their championship flag out in left field. Its not quite payback, but the Cubs killed the buzz around St. Louis with Fridays 9-5 win.

Motivated to ruin the celebration?

It should be more pissed off, pitcher Matt Garza said the day before, because we could have knocked them out of the playoffs last year in the second-to-last series and we kind of handed it over. It should be more motivation than anything, saying this could have been somebody elses (title) if we played better.

The 46,882 fans wore hooded jackets and held umbrellas, sitting through a rain delay that lasted an hour and 44 minutes. Cubs players watched parts of the ceremony while stretching and playing catch.

The Cardinals put on a production, and they were playing with house money. They trailed the Braves by 10.5 games on Aug. 24 last year before winning the wild card on the final day of the regular season.

The Hall of Famers wore bright red blazers: Stan Musial, Ozzie Smith, Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Bruce Sutter, Whitey Herzog and Red Schoendienst. The uniforms had special gold lettering. The F-16s buzzed across the sky.

Were here to win, first baseman Bryan LaHair said. They had a good celebration before the game. Its deserved. (But) we came out and we played well and got a victory.

The Cubs (3-5) hammered Adam Wainwright early, with Ian Stewart hitting his first home run in the big leagues since Aug. 23, 2010, when he was with Colorado. The three-run shot into the right-field seats set the tone in the first inning. LaHair topped that in the third inning by lifting a fastball over the fence in left and into the Cubs bullpen for a grand slam.

Jeff Samardzija (2-0) had a nine-run lead to work with, and coasted through four innings before laboring to qualify for the win. The Cardinals (5-3) scored their five runs in the fifth, but you didnt see the crazy stuff that almost always seemed to happen here last year.

Carlos Zambrano went off with his We stinks! rant. Quade called pitching to Pujols (or not) a second-guessers delight and admitted he was managing for his job. Aramis Ramirez gave a State of Ramirez address near the trade deadline (which yielded no moves). Matt Holliday took out Starlin Castro with that hard slide.

This is where the Cardinals found some walk-off magic.

You come here and they make you make plays, Samardzija said. They rarely make mistakes as a team and they kind of put it on you to play solid baseball. We definitely did that today. We made the plays on defense (and) you got to do that to beat these guys.

You give them any chance to get back in the game and they will for sure. (But) what a great job our bullpen did (Rafael Dolis, James Russell, Kerry Wood, Carlos Marmol).

I remember a few days ago everybody was talking about the bullpen and whats going to happen and now you look at them and they throw four scoreless (innings). Thats what we all expect out of them.

There wasnt anything to second-guess. When you walk into the managers office, its hard to tell whether the Cubs won or lost, which is exactly the point. Dale Sveum told his players where to be on Saturday.

Ive already asked them to be out there for the ring ceremony, Sveum said. I think its a special day. You show your respect for the world champions.

Penn State erases three-touchdown deficit to best Badgers in Big Ten Championship Game

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USA TODAY

Penn State erases three-touchdown deficit to best Badgers in Big Ten Championship Game

INDIANAPOLIS — Penn State might not be representing the Big Ten in the College Football Playoff, but it is the champion of the best conference in college football.

The seventh-ranked Nittany Lions won the Big Ten Championship Game on Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium, adding another signature win to their Playoff resume with a 38-31 win over the sixth-ranked Wisconsin Badgers.

The immediate conversation, of course, turns to the Playoff and how that despite capturing the conference title, Penn State seems to have a slim chance of reaching the final four and competing for a national championship. Second-ranked Ohio State, which didn't play on Saturday night, looks like a Playoff lock. Same with top-ranked Alabama, which won the SEC Championship Game on Saturday and boasts an undefeated record. Fourth-ranked Washington won the Pac-12 Championship Game on Friday night and looked mighty impressive in doing so, seemingly punching its ticket to the Playoff. And then of course there's fifth-ranked Michigan, another Big Ten team not playing on Saturday but still under consideration thanks to its exceptional resume.

But Penn State has played like a Playoff-caliber team this season, and Saturday's win confirmed it, the Lions storming back from a three-touchdown deficit in the first half and scoring on five straight drives as Trace McSorley led yet another second-half comeback.

The selection committee will announce the four-team field Sunday. Has Penn State done enough to jump some teams and get into the Playoff?

Perhaps needing an exceptionally dominant performance to earn a berth, Wisconsin looked determined to turn one in early. The Badgers marched 81 yards on their first possession, getting a pair of huge third-down conversions from Bart Houston, a helpful late-hit penalty on Penn State and a one-yard touchdown plunge from full back Austin Ramesh to take an early 7-0 lead. The explosion came one the next possession — after the Badger defense had forced a second straight three and out — when Corey Clement busted off a 67-yard touchdown run, getting superb blocking en route to a 14-0 lead.

Penn State punched back, doing what it's done best during its eight-game win streak: getting big plays from its offense. Saquon Barkley rushed for 22 yards, McSorley completed a 16-yard pass, and then McSorley bombed a throw to the end zone, where tight end Mike Gesicki made an incredible leaping grab for a touchdown and to cut it to a one-score game.

The Lions finally forced a Badger punt, but five plays into the ensuing series a high snap bounced over McSorley's head and right into the arms of Wisconsin linebacker Ryan Connelly, who returned the fumble 12 yards for another Badger touchdown, making it a 21-7 game.

James Franklin made a questionable decision the next time Penn State had the ball, going for it on fourth down from his own 42-yard line. McSorley was pressured — a common theme throughout the first half — and threw the ball out of bounds, giving Wisconsin a short field. The Badgers capitalized, Dare Ogunbowale polishing off the short drive with a seven-yard touchdown run to make it 28-7.

Penn State had one more strike in it in the first half, though, going 90 yards downfield, the last 40 of which came on a McSorley touchdown pass to Saeed Blacknall, a touchdown when Wisconsin safety Lubern Figaro whiffed on the tackle and allowed Blacknall to waltz into the end zone. That score made it 28-14 right before halftime.

The Badgers started out the second half with Andrew Endicott's miss on a 48-yard field-goal try, and the Lions pounced on that opportunity, flexing their second-half muscles with a 70-yard bomb of a touchdown pass from McSorley to Blacknall on the very next play to make it 28-21.

After Houston avoided disaster for Wisconsin by recovering his own fumble on third down, Penn State marched right down the field, picking up several big gains en route to a game-tying touchdown, Barkley plowing in from a yard out to even the score at 28.

The Badgers responded with a great offensive sequence, getting 20-plus-yard gainers from Clement and Bradrick Shaw. But the drive stalled out in the red zone, and Wisconsin booted a chip-shot field goal to retake the lead, this one at 31-28.

Nothing about the Lions' offensive attack was stalling, though, with McSorley continuing to pitch the ball all over the field, with his receivers making terrific catches for huge gains. McSorley hit DaeSean Hamilton for gains of 38 and 25 yards before lofting a perfect pass to Barkley in the end zone for another Penn State touchdown. The offense looked unstoppable in taking a 35-31 lead, ending a fourth straight drive with a touchdown. McSorley & Co. made it five straight scoring drives on their next possession, Penn State marching downfield — with the help of a couple 15-yard penalties on Wisconsin — and getting a 24-yard field goal from Tyler Davis to boost the lead to 38-31.

The Badgers moved downfield late in the fourth, trying for a game-tying score, but Penn State stopped Clement short of the line to gain on fourth and 1, sealing the victory.

Regardless of Penn State's Playoff fate, the Lions' journey under Franklin, from the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal to a Big Ten championship, has been remarkable.

Bulls fall flat in blowout loss in Dallas

Bulls fall flat in blowout loss in Dallas

DALLAS (AP) -- Wesley Matthews scored 20 of his 26 points in the second half in the Dallas Mavericks' 107-82 victory over the Chicago Bulls 107-82 on Saturday night.

Harrison Barnes scored 17 of his 22 points in the first half to help Dallas win its second straight game after losing 13 of its first 15.

Chicago was coming off a 111-105 victory over defending champion Cleveland on Friday night, the Bulls only win in their last four. Jimmy Butler led Chicago with 26 points.

Barnes powered the Mavericks to a 17-point first-quarter lead.

Dwight Powell (17) and rookie Dorian Finney-Smith (11) had career highs in scoring, and Deron Williams had a season-high 15 assists.

Neither team scored in the first 2:15, but Dallas went on a 7-0 run over the next 1:20. The Mavericks led 23-6 with 3:17 left. The quarter ended with Dallas leading 29-18. Barnes scored eight points, and Andrew Bogut had six points and eight rebounds.

Chicago pulled within six points three times in the second quarter, but Dallas finished the first half with a 57-45 lead. In the third quarter, Matthews had 14 points, and the Mavericks' lead by as many as 21 points. The quarter ended with Dallas leading 82-66.