ST. LOUIS -- When asked about tensions spilling out onto the field, Albert Pujols called the animosity of this Brewers-Cardinals rivalry a media creation. When asked if his guys could maintain their composure in this series, Tony La Russa asserted that baseball would be the first and only focus. And when asked for comments on pointed Zack Greinke remarks against him, Chris Carpenter turned the other way.

The Cards -- the "old school," far-less-abrasive ones in this National League Championship Series -- have put together an epic six weeks by muting the outside world and rising above the noise.

Now -- at least temporarily -- they've risen above Milwaukee.

The Redbirds trailed the Brewers in the division every single day after July 26, and at one point, they were so far back that Nyjer Morgan felt the urge to disgrace them via Twitter. Now look at St. Louis: Thanks to yet another early outburst, a bend-but-don't-break effort by Carpenter, more greatness from Pujols and perfect bullpen usage by La Russa, the Cardinals pulled off a 4-3 victory on their home turf Wednesday night, giving them a 2-1 NLCS advantage.

In baseball history, teams with a 2-1 lead in a best-of-seven series are a combined 87-38 (including 16-5 in the NLCS). A lot is left in this series, of course -- and you'd be foolish to even begin to count out these scrappy Brewers -- but the Cards are now a whole lot more likely to make it to the World Series than they are not to.

Imagine that.

The team that looked dead in September, then done after three first-round games is now two wins away from the pennant. They got there with a lot of heart, a little arrogance and boatloads of perseverance.

And they surely didn't do so by buying into any hype.

"That's what it's all about -- baseball," catcher Yadier Molina said. "We don't look at anything else; just try to win the game."

"Everybody has their own way of playing and approaching the game," shortstop Rafael Furcal said. "We just focus on what we have to do."

The Brewers are a fun, unabashed, somewhat-controversial bunch; it's part of what makes them great. They like to yell, make "Beast Mode" signs on the basepaths and try to poke at you a little bit.

But for the last two months, the Cardinals have been far too distracted with other manners to focus on the petty -- like stringing some wins together, digging out of a huge hole, relying on a miracle to make the playoffs and figuring out a way to beat the world-beating Phillies. You tend to not worry about your shoes being untied while hanging off the edge of a cliff.

"We had our backs up against the wall for a month and a half, and we don't have time for that kind of stuff, you know?" bench player extraordinaire Allen Craig said. "You have to focus on the game, and I think the whole thing is a little overblown. We just focus on the field and what's going on in the clubhouse. That's it."

At last, the Cards actually have some sort of lead.

They were 10 1/2 back with 31 to play, were three back with five regular-season games left and were facing two elimination games against baseball's best team in the NL Division Series.

On Thursday night, they'll enter Game 4 with something they haven't felt in a long, long time: Odds in their favor.

"We are really not going to stop and think about it, because there's so much yet to do," La Russa said. "If you stop and think, you may get distracted and you start walking around and digging yourself, and we don't want to do that."

The road the Redbirds took to get to this point was unforeseen and improbable. But take a look up and down this roster, and you realize they're simply good enough to be here. They have a dangerous middle of the order, a solid rotation led by a legit ace and a vastly improved bullpen.

With Pujols scorching hot (6-for-7 with five extra-base hits and six RBIs in the past two games) and closer Jason Motte on fire (6 1/3 shutout innings, six strikeouts and no walks through the first two rounds), the Cardinals look more like a team that cruised to the playoffs.

"It's not like, 'Oh my gosh, I can't believe the poor little Cardinals are in the NLCS making some noise,'" right fielder Lance Berkman said. "That having been said, we're a long way from anywhere where we want to be. But the fact that we're here, to me, is not surprising."

What was surprising on this night was that St. Louis didn't end up with a blowout.

They came out of the gate as recent history would suggest -- scoring early for the fifth straight game and dominating Yovani Gallardo. The Brewers' ace came in hot, but the Cardinals had scored 16 runs in their last 15 2/3 innings against him. In Game 3, they continued that trend by having seven of their first eight batters reach -- three via doubles -- and taking a 4-0 lead by the time the second inning started.

With Carpenter coming off a mesmerizing shutout in the NLDS clincher, you had a feeling the Redbirds were running away with it. Then Carpenter struggled, then he battled through it by leaving after five with the 4-3 lead. Then came that bullpen.

Fernando Salas -- zeros.

Lance Lynn -- zeros.

Marc Rzepczynski -- zeros.

Motte -- zeros.

A sellout crowd of 43,584 -- nuts.

The Cardinals -- tunnel vision.

"We are not concerned about what people think and where we're at," Carpenter said. "We are here playing as hard as we can, just as we have for the last two months."