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Tom Verducci
October 14, 2002
The underdogs are having their day in October, setting the stage for two unexpected matchups in the League Championship Series
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October 14, 2002

Upset Specials

The underdogs are having their day in October, setting the stage for two unexpected matchups in the League Championship Series

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NLCS: Cardinals vs. Giants
Help from a Higher Power

They're sitting together on the edge of a cloud, wearing red caps, with a perfect view into Busch Stadium. And when Jack Buck and Darryl Kile watch their favorite team play, they make sure to sprinkle a little angel dust, just for good luck.

If you think this sounds silly, you'd be wise not to enter the St. Louis Cardinals' clubhouse, where 25 men seem convinced—beyond even the slightest of doubts—that they are destined to roll past the San Francisco Giants in the National League Championship Series and then win the team's first World Series in 20 years. During the Cards' three-game laugher over the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Division Series last week, no St. Louis player would take sole credit for anything. After righthanded ace Matt Morris allowed just one earned run over seven innings in his Game 1 victory, he acknowledged Kile for teaching him calmness under pressure. After Rick White threw an inning of one-hit relief in Game 2, he cited Buck's "spiritual presence." After second baseman Fernando Vi�a, whose .600 series average led the assault, was asked to explain his playoff heroics, his reply was automatic. "Bro," he said, "that comes from above."

Vi�a was not referring to the beams 10 feet over his head in the St. Louis clubhouse, from which Kile's white home jersey dangles like a Christmas ornament. No, ever since Buck, the club's broadcaster for 48 years, and Kile, the crafty starting pitcher, died in June, the Cardinals have gazed skyward and drawn inspiration from their grief.

"They had a choice when all the tragedy struck," said Arizona outfielder David Dellucci. "They could have folded, and nobody would have blamed them. But they became stronger. They're going to win the World Series. I mean, how do you stop a team on a mission?"

If there's one man who has the answer to that question, it's Giants righthander Livan Hernandez, who five years ago, with the Florida Marlins, was faced with a similarly daunting task. In 1997 the hard-luck Cleveland Indians, appearing in their second World Series in 43 years, were everybody's choice to beat the upstart Marlins, who were in only their fifth season of existence. Instead Hernandez won his two starts and the Series MVP award as Florida took the world championship in seven games. Five years and, oh, 7,876 Big Macs later, Hernandez is still one of the game's top playoff performers. On Sunday night, with the Braves needing one win to advance, Hernandez produced a masterful 8?-inning, three-run performance in San Francisco's 8-3 win. It was the 27-year-old Cuban's sixth career postseason decision without a loss, and it spoke volumes about the Giants' mound strength. Like Hernandez, righthander Russ Ortiz (2-0, 2.19 ERA against Atlanta, including a win in Game 5) is fearless in the playoffs. "Livan's a guy who doesn't get rattled or feel any of the pressure," says Ortiz. "I definitely feed off him. We all do. This whole team does not get rattled."

But what makes the Cardinals the thinking man's pick to reach the World Series—other than their guardian angels-is a lineup that, top to bottom, has no holes. Whereas the team's three primary starters (Morris, lefthander Chuck Finley and righthander Andy Benes) know they can pitch around San Francisco sluggers Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent, the Giants' staff does not have that luxury. In the Division Series, for example, after third baseman Scott Rolen suffered a shoulder sprain in Game 2 that will keep him on the shelf indefinitely, the Cardinals appeared down and out for about 17 seconds—until utilityman Miguel Cairo stepped in, delivered the winning hit in that game and then went 3 for 3 in the finale. Until then Cairo, who lacks Rolen's power and Gold Glove, was best known this season for his 19 pinch hits, second most in the NL.

"When it comes to the playoffs, there are intangibles that are more important than anything else," rightfielder J.D. Drew says. "Things that you normally wouldn't think of can make all the difference between winning and losing. It's that certain special something." Drew was referring to Cairo's clutch performance, though he could have meant divine intervention.

Either way, who can argue?

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