THE SKY did notfall. There it was, vast, cloudless and lit by a full moon on Sunday night,when the St. Louis Cardinals slouched into the National League ChampionshipSeries against the New York Mets. There were times, certainly, during the lastfew weeks that the goofy Redbird mascot had shown a distinct family resemblanceto Chicken Little as the Cardinals teetered on the brink of a Mauchiancatastrophe. The three-games-to-one division series victory over the San DiegoPadres, however, should have brightened the forecast, improved the civic moodof the best baseball city in America. The city that adored Joe Medwick andPepper Martin's Gashouse Gang 72 years ago should have warmed to the grit andcharm of the Almost Took the Gas Gang of Albert Pujols and Chris Carpenter, butthe scars of a roller-coaster season lingered even as the Cardinals continuedto loiter in the playoffs.
If the St. Louisplayers had shaken off the gloom even before dispatching the Padres--"Theywere putting together a funeral, but the corpse jumped out of the box,"said one member of the ownership group in an upbeat clubhouse last Thursday,after the Cardinals shut out San Diego 2--0 in Game 2--their city seemed unsureof what to make of this esprit de corpse. The creeping cynicism about one ofthe four baseball teams still standing was illustrated, in the most literalsense, by a St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial cartoon last Saturday, themorning on which the Cardinals awoke one win away from their fourth NLCS infive years. Fredbird, dripping flop sweat, was trying to placate a fan withpromises of a division series sweep, a National League pennant, a really strongeffort in World Series, but the fan kept insisting that nothing but a#&*@!# championship would do.
You startdropping those #&*@!# bombs in a Midwest newspaper ... well, the dynamichas changed between the most reflexively loyal fans in the country and a teamthat has spoiled them by making the playoffs in seven of the past 11 years.
There were boosfor the home team in the new Busch Stadium in 2006--not raucous booing perhapsbut, as Fred Hanser, part of the ownership group since 1996, labeled it, boos"of frustration." A team that had won 205 games over the past twoseasons played some egregious baseball, losing eight straight twice betweenJune 20 and Aug. 4, then seven in a row while blowing all but a half game ofits 8 1/2-game lead over the Houston Astros at the end of the season.
Of course, theseCardinals were a shell of their past powerhouses, Pujols's MVP-quality seasonand Carpenter's Cy Young--caliber work a Potemkin Village that masked anotherwise ordinary team. Given debilitating injuries to core players--closerJason Isringhausen and lefty starter Mark Mulder were lost to hip androtator-cuff surgeries, respectively, while shortstop David Eckstein (strainedoblique) and centerfielder Jim Edmonds (postconcussion syndrome) each missedroughly 5 1/2 weeks between mid-August and late September--the stumble shouldhardly have been a shock. But that didn't make it any more palatable. PrestonWilson, the platoon rightfielder and career National Leaguer who joined theteam in mid-August, said he could hardly remember a visiting player beingbooed, let alone a St. Louis player. "If the players here have been spoiledby not being booed and we've changed that," relief pitcher Randy Floressays, "so be it."
During the secondhalf, when they failed to win back-to-back road games after July 26, theCardinals were having their temperature taken daily. And not orally, either."The way we were being written about and the way the fans were booing ussometimes, it almost felt like we were a below-.500 team," says rookie AdamWainwright, Isringhausen's fill-in as closer, "a last-place club."
"I know latein the season I harkened back to the Phillies [collapse] in 1964 when theCardinals were the beneficiaries," says Hanser, whose great-grandfather,Adolph M. Diez, once owned the team. "Sometimes you think what goes aroundcomes around, and that this could turn out very badly for theCardinals."
A metaphysicalquestion: Can one really call it a collapse if a team is only slightly betterthan average, as flimsy as a house of Cards? The '64 Phillies, who promptedmanager Gene Mauch to overturn a table of cold cuts in the clubhouse as theteam was blowing a 6 1/2-game lead with 12 to play, still won a creditable 90games. The other teams that suffered legendary meltdowns--the '51 Dodgers, the'78 Red Sox, the '87 Blue Jays--won 97, 99 and 96 games, respectively. St.Louis staggered home with 83 wins. "I think it was [reliever] Josh Hancockwho said that it was almost like our vets knew we were going to win the regularseason, and they were just cruising along, trying not to exert too muchenergy," Wainwright says. "Like they almost knew they'd get here andknew they would play great when they did."
St. Louis didplay superbly, closing out the Padres behind Carpenter, who allowed just threeruns in 13 1/3 innings in the series and proved his tenacity in the clincher bylimiting San Diego to two runs despite loading the bases twice in a 35-pitchfirst inning. With apologies to the estimable Tom Glavine, Carpenter is theonly true ace left in the NL playoffs, precisely the kind of bedrock starterupon which the church of postseason baseball has been built. "That firstinning, that wasn't typical of him," shortstop David Eckstein says. "Heprobably threw more balls that inning than in the rest of the game. From thenon he gave us a chance to come back, let us break through late in the game.He's everything to this club."
If Carpenter'sdominance was anticipated--Cards skipper Tony La Russa gambled by holdingCarpenter out of the last game of the regular season so he could go in Games 1and 4--the series actually turned on righthander Jeff Weaver's five shutoutinnings in Game 2, a delightful surprise along the lines of sticking your handin the pocket of a coat in October and finding a $20 bill you had left therelast spring. Weaver had been raw meat to lefthanded hitters--.357 battingaverage, .428 on-base percentage and .669 slugging percentage--in the 15 St.Louis starts he had made after being acquired from the Angels on July 5. Weaveressentially had turned every lefthanded hitter into a slightly better versionof Ryan Howard. Padres manager Bruce Bochy loaded his lineup with sevenlefthanded hitters, then watched Weaver throw a glut of curveballs that theycouldn't handle before La Russa turned the game over to a green but impressivebullpen. St. Louis relievers did not allow a run in 13 1/3 innings against SanDiego, and 26 of the 40 outs they got were logged by rookies.
The Mets, who hit.294 and averaged more than six runs in their three-game bludgeoning of theDodgers, present a stronger test for the Cardinals staff than the fecklessPadres hitters, who went 2 for 32 with runners in scoring position. Still,battling New York is easier than arm-wrestling the demons of the 1964 Phillies.With the Pujols-anchored lineup bruised but largely intact (third baseman ScottRolen's left shoulder continues to bother him), the sky is not falling in St.Louis. No, the sky is the limit.
The maligned LaRussa made all the right moves, especially managing his youngbullpen.
The Cardinals caught heat down the stretch, then Pujols caught fire against thePadres, going 5 for 8 in two victories in San Diego.