They've been playing the World Series for 109 years. And now we are one St. Louis victory away from a World Series we never have seen before: two teams that did not win 90 games over a full season; the strike-shortened season of 1981 (players strike) and 1918 (World War I) also had teams without 90 wins. The American League champion Tigers and the Cardinals, who now lead the NLCS 3-games-to-1, tied for 11th in the majors with 88 regular season wins -- fewer than the Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Angels, who have been done playing for three weeks.
But understand this: neither team needs to apologize for going deep into the postseason. This is the new normal -- a sport in which the talent gap between the team with the most wins and the team with the 11th most wins never has been thinner. Also, the layers of postseason play, now expanded to four, increases the chances that the so-called "better" team (based purely on wins) will get picked off.
Perhaps most importantly, April no longer matters. Detroit and St. Louis are the best teams in each league at this moment. The Tigers, after coming back from three games behind the White Sox in mid-September, are 22-9 in their last 31 games. The Cardinals, the last team into the tournament for a second straight year, are 19-7 in their past 26 games.
What counts less than their season total of wins is how they play and what their roster looks like at the end of the season. The Tigers filled two key needs with the trade for pitcher Anibal Sanchez and second baseman Omar Infante. The Cardinals added relievers Edward Mujica, Joe Kelly and Trevor Rosenthal through a trade and minor league promotions while getting Chris Carpenter back into the rotation. As outfielder Lance Berman said the other day, this 88-win team ended the season with the equivalent of a 100-win roster.
"We were hunting at the end of last year and the hunted this year," said Cardinals third baseman David Freese. "We know the important thing is to go into the playoffs confident and as a winning team."
See if you detect a pattern here: Tony La Russa retires; Mike Matheny steps in. Albert Pujols leaves as a free agent; Allen Craig steps in. Colby Rasmus gets traded; John Jay steps in. Chris Carpenter gets hurt; Lance Lynn steps in. Rafael Furcal gets injured; Pete Kozma steps in. Carlos Beltran gets injured; Matt Carpenter steps in. Skip Schumaker slumps; Daniel Descalso steps in. Kyle McClellan gets hurt; Trevor Rosenthal steps in.
If you haven't figured it by now, the Cardinals may be the best team in baseball at coming up with internal options from their system and never missing a beat. And what the organization deserves special credit for is finding talent deep into the draft and turning it into major league players.
"Not just major league players," corrected Carpenter, "but championship major league players. This organization finds not just talent, but players with the intangibles to succeed."
Last night in NLCS Game 4, the Cardinals started seven homegrown players. Those players had nine hits, seven runs and five RBI. Only one of them, Kozma, was a first round pick -- and he was hitting .236 over six minor league seasons when the Cardinals summoned him. Now suddenly he's Honus Wagner.
Carpenter is a typical Cardinal find. He went undrafted until he was a fifth-year senior at TCU, partly because he underwent Tommy John surgery during his junior year. The Cardinals took him in the 13th round in 2009. He was far from disappointed at being taken so late. "I was just happy I had a chance to continue playing," he said. "There's not too many fifth-year seniors who get drafted."
"Now," Freese said, "we all know Matt Carpenter takes as good an at-bat as anybody."
Amazingly, four of the 25 players on the Cardinals' postseason roster were selected in that draft just three years ago: pitcher Shelby Miller (first round), Kelly (third), Carpenter and Rosenthal (an absolute steal at 21st). A fifth player from that draft, Matt Adams, also has reached the majors already. That is a stunning hit rate.
More great mining was represented in the lineup: Jay (second round, 2006), Descalso (third, 2007), Yadier Molina (fourth, 2000) and Craig (eighth, 2006).
"There are a lot of guys in this room that got here with a chip on our shoulder," Craig said. "The other thing that's important is the veteran leadership here. When you get here, you are told how to act and what to do. It's not a case of guys just coming in and doing their own thing."
Said Carpenter, "In this organization you are taught the Cardinal Way. It's a style of play they teach where you come to the ballpark every day to compete. They do a really good job."
The Cardinals have flourished despite injuries and defections. It is a tribute not only to finding players outside of the first round of the draft, but a fully integrated farm system in which St. Louis coaches and trainers are developing players at a success rate that may be the best in all of baseball.
The Yankees didn't just get swept by Detroit; it was their first time getting swept in 37 postseason series over the past 32 years. They were embarrassed. "That was one of the worst lay-downs in sports history," said one league executive.
There have been 157 seven-game series in baseball history. Only five teams -- or just 1.6 percent of all teams to play in those series -- were swept without ever holding so much as one lead even for one half inning: the 1963 Yankees (to the Dodgers), 1966 Dodgers (to the Orioles), 1989 Giants (to the Athletics), 2004 Cardinals (to the Red Sox) and now the 2012 Yankees.
What's interesting is how New York buried not just Alex Rodriguez, but also Curtis Granderson, a good soldier for the franchise. It's fascinating how the Yankees and Red Sox eat their own when times turn bad. Other teams don't turn on their own players and whip their own fans against them. And yet the casualty list from New York and Boston in the past decade is longer than the rest of baseball put together: Randy Johnson, Jeff Weaver, A.J. Burnett, Jason Giambi, Carl Pavano, Bernie Williams, Joe Torre, Jorge Posada, Johnny Damon, Rodriguez, Nomar Garciaparra, Terry Francona, Kevin Youkilis, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and on and on . . . it always ends not just badly, but ugly.
Watching the Red Sox and Yankees dismantle themselves is like watching the fall of communist Russia, collapsing upon themselves after so many years of an escalating arms race.
"Interesting that the Sox and Yanks are both suffering now mainly as a result of pushing too hard to keep up to one another years ago," the executive said. "We'll never see that again with the new playoff format and CBA."
It's hard to remember a great hitter turning so bad so quickly as what happened to Alex Rodriguez over the last month. Don't let anybody tell you the Yankees gave up on him after just one bad series. Don't tell me about his OPS for the season. Rodriguez hit five home runs in his last 224 at-bats. And from the middle of September through the postseason, he was one of the worst hitters in baseball.
In his last 83 at-bats, Rodriguez hit .205 with one double, one RBI and zero home runs. The last time he knocked in a teammate from the bases with a hit was all the way back on Sept. 16. The Yankees erstwhile number three hitter hit like a pitcher for a month.
Giants starter Tim Lincecum was in trouble from the start last night. After three relief appearances in which he fixed his mechanics, he reverted to a shortened arm swing after taking the ball out of his glove -- and the glitch caused him to lose his command all over again. Once again, when Lincecum is on time he swings the baseball behind his butt. When he doesn't get it back that far, his timing is off, which explains why he missed so many pitches last night very high and off the plate on the arm side. "Well, early he was cutting himself off there a little bit," manager Bruce Bochy acknowledged . . . Good luck to lefthander Barry Zito pitching to the Cardinals tonight in Game 5. Fifty-one lefthanded pitchers have started against St. Louis this year, postseason included. Only 12 of them have emerged with a win . . . Until Pablo Sandoval hit a garbage-time homer in the ninth inning last night, Sandoval, Buster Posey and Hunter Pence -- what passes for the heart of the Giants lineup -- were 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position this series . . . Bochy made some good moves with his lineup in Game 4, but when Adam Wainwright has all of his pitches working and an early lead, the batting order against him becomes moot. Wainwright was so sharp he threw only 26 balls to 25 batters.