The St. Louis Cardinals are a close-knit bunch, and last Friday many of them whiled away part of the afternoon watching television on a sofa in the visitors' clubhouse in Atlanta. They were relaxed, up two games to none in a series they would sweep with a 7-1 win the next day, and they sat together snug as the Simpsons on the family couch. On the screen, a make-out session began to unfold. Thirty-six-year-old first baseman Will Clark turned a sardonic grin toward 24-year-old outfielder J.D. Drew. Never mind his age, the snarky Clark makes a good Bart. "Hey, J.D." he said, his voice rising into a cackle. "You see that? That's the first step toward sex right there, you know that?"
Reminding his teammates of what getting to first base can lead to has been but one of Clark's contributions to the surging Cardinals. Since being acquired from the Baltimore Orioles on July 31 to fill the void at first base—and, more dauntingly, at the plate—that was created by an injury to Mark McGwire, Clark has emerged as St. Louis's swaggering shaman, a wise head on the field and a spirited voice in the clubhouse. After batting .345 with 12 home runs and 42 RBIs in 51 regular-season games and then knocking in four runs against the Braves, he also had baseball people debating the unthinkable: With Clark batting cleanup and McGwire serving as the most potent pinch hitter in the postseason, is the Cardinals' offense stronger now than before McGwire went on the shelf on July 6 with tendinitis in his right knee? "You can't say they're better without Mac starting, because he can hit four home runs in a game," said Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz after both Clark and McGwire homered in St. Louis's 10-4 win in last Thursday's Game 2, "but they're not diminished at all."
Neither is the Cardinals' third-place hitter and MVP candidate, Jim Edmonds, the former Anaheim Angel who, in the first postseason series of his career, went 8 for 14 with two home runs, seven RBIs and six extra-base hits, and played a sterling centerfield. Ripping hits from foul line to foul line, Edmonds handled the Braves' gold-standard starters Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, as well as Kevin Millwood, as if they were beer leaguers: He went 7 for 8 with homers off Maddux and Millwood.
Yet not even a hitter of Edmonds's ability can win a playoff series alone. Consider an Edmonds-Millwood confrontation in the fifth inning of Game 3. With St. Louis leading 3-1 and Edgar Renteria on third with two outs, Millwood fell behind 3 and 0. Instead of walking Edmonds, who had roped a 418-foot homer his previous time up, Millwood glanced at Clark twirling his bat on deck and threw three straight sliders over the plate. Edmonds laid off the first two, then smacked the third off the leftfield wall for a double. "Teams are growing wary of Clark, and when you have a hitter like Edmonds getting pitches—look out," said Cardinals batting coach Mike Easier after that game. "I'm in heaven."
Heaven to Easier is having the best one-through-eight batting order of any team left in the playoffs. In addition to the muscle in the middle of the order, St. Louis has a line-drive-stroking leadoff hitter, Fernando Vi�a, who has more career walks than strikeouts; a veteran catcher, Carlos Hernandez, with a career postseason average of .314; and a number 8 hitter, Placido Polanco, who batted .316 this season. "That lineup," said Glavine, "hit every mistake we made."
The lineup seemed destined for disarray after McGwire went down. The Cardinals missed his incomparable power, and as neither utilityman Craig Paquette nor 38-year-old outfielder Eric Davis asserted himself in the cleanup spot, Edmonds's production slipped dramatically. St. Louis scouts reporting from Baltimore said that Clark, who had struggled with injuries in recent seasons and was long past his All-Star days with the San Francisco Giants a decade ago, was rounding into the form that had enabled him to drive in 102 runs with the Texas Rangers in '98. St. Louis got him for a minor leaguer. "We knew he was going to help them," says B.J. Surhoff, Clark's Baltimore teammate, who was traded to Atlanta in July. "The guy had his stroke back, and he's a money player."
Clark cashed in with a home run in each of his first four starts with the Cardinals. That McGwiresque display rejuvenated St. Louis—it was in an 8-14 funk when Clark arrived but went 37-19 over the rest of the regular season—and assured Clark's acceptance. Sarcastic, cantankerous and quick to carp in his chipmunk-pitched Louisiana drawl, Clark struts through the clubhouse razzing all men equally. He good-naturedly calls McGwire a "dork" and sits at his locker ordering younger teammates to fetch him bottles of beer, which they promptly do.
Clark's clubhouse breeziness stands in contrast to his intensity on the field, a trait he shares with Edmonds. "Those guys take BP like it's the World Series," says Easler. Before the games against the Braves, Clark chased observers from the batting cage, saying, "I've got work to do." His discipline may have helped him get the biggest hit of the series. Facing Glavine with two on and one out in the first inning of Game 2 and the Cardinals trailing 2-0, Clark fouled off a low, outside changeup on a full count. When Glavine came back with another tough change, Clark pulled it over the rightfield wall. St. Louis led 3-2 and would never again trail in the series.
Clark had an equally profound effect on Saturday's clinching game. While playing first base in the fourth, he noticed a change in the motion of Cardinals righthander Garrett Stephenson, who has battled tendinitis in his right elbow since September. St. Louis was leading 3-1 and the Braves weren't threatening, yet Clark signaled to manager Tony La Russa. When Stephenson let his arm drop after his next pitch, Clark ran to the mound and said, "That's it; we don't need heroes." Moments later La Russa called in eventual winning pitcher Britt Reames. "I hated it, but Will was right," said Stephenson in the clubhouse after the game, his pitching elbow heavily wrapped. "I could have hurt the team." Going into the National League Championship Series, Stephenson was listed as day-to-day.
Clark and the Cardinals began their post-Division Series celebration by surrounding Edmonds's stall and shouting, "MVP! MVP!" while bouncing up and down en masse. Shortly thereafter, Clark and Edmonds came face-to-face in the champagne rain. Shoeblack ran down both men's faces as Clark, his bald pate glistening, wrapped Edmonds in an embrace and whispered into his ear. Clark would not divulge exactly what he said, though he did allow that "I told him he was awesome. I told him I couldn't wait to go get 'em in the next round."