THE SKY did not
fall. There it was, vast, cloudless and lit by a full moon on Sunday night,
when the St. Louis Cardinals slouched into the National League Championship
Series against the New York Mets. There were times, certainly, during the last
few weeks that the goofy Redbird mascot had shown a distinct family resemblance
to Chicken Little as the Cardinals teetered on the brink of a Mauchian
catastrophe. The three-games-to-one division series victory over the San Diego
Padres, however, should have brightened the forecast, improved the civic mood
of the best baseball city in America. The city that adored Joe Medwick and
Pepper Martin's Gashouse Gang 72 years ago should have warmed to the grit and
charm of the Almost Took the Gas Gang of Albert Pujols and Chris Carpenter, but
the scars of a roller-coaster season lingered even as the Cardinals continued
to loiter in the playoffs.
If the St. Louis
players had shaken off the gloom even before dispatching the Padres--"They
were 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 unsure
of what to make of this esprit de corpse. The creeping cynicism about one of
the four baseball teams still standing was illustrated, in the most literal
sense, by a St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial cartoon last Saturday, the
morning on which the Cardinals awoke one win away from their fourth NLCS in
five years. Fredbird, dripping flop sweat, was trying to placate a fan with
promises of a division series sweep, a National League pennant, a really strong
effort in World Series, but the fan kept insisting that nothing but a
#&*@!# championship would do.
dropping those #&*@!# bombs in a Midwest newspaper ... well, the dynamic
has changed between the most reflexively loyal fans in the country and a team
that has spoiled them by making the playoffs in seven of the past 11 years.
There were boos
for the home team in the new Busch Stadium in 2006--not raucous booing perhaps
but, 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 two
seasons played some egregious baseball, losing eight straight twice between
June 20 and Aug. 4, then seven in a row while blowing all but a half game of
its 8 1/2-game lead over the Houston Astros at the end of the season.
Of course, these
Cardinals were a shell of their past powerhouses, Pujols's MVP-quality season
and Carpenter's Cy Young--caliber work a Potemkin Village that masked an
otherwise ordinary team. Given debilitating injuries to core players--closer
Jason Isringhausen and lefty starter Mark Mulder were lost to hip and
rotator-cuff surgeries, respectively, while shortstop David Eckstein (strained
oblique) and centerfielder Jim Edmonds (postconcussion syndrome) each missed
roughly 5 1/2 weeks between mid-August and late September--the stumble should
hardly have been a shock. But that didn't make it any more palatable. Preston
Wilson, the platoon rightfielder and career National Leaguer who joined the
team in mid-August, said he could hardly remember a visiting player being
booed, let alone a St. Louis player. "If the players here have been spoiled
by not being booed and we've changed that," relief pitcher Randy Flores
says, "so be it."
During the second
half, when they failed to win back-to-back road games after July 26, the
Cardinals were having their temperature taken daily. And not orally, either.
"The way we were being written about and the way the fans were booing us
sometimes, it almost felt like we were a below-.500 team," says rookie Adam
Wainwright, Isringhausen's fill-in as closer, "a last-place club."
"I know late
in the season I harkened back to the Phillies [collapse] in 1964 when the
Cardinals were the beneficiaries," says Hanser, whose great-grandfather,
Adolph M. Diez, once owned the team. "Sometimes you think what goes around
comes around, and that this could turn out very badly for the
question: Can one really call it a collapse if a team is only slightly better
than average, as flimsy as a house of Cards? The '64 Phillies, who prompted
manager Gene Mauch to overturn a table of cold cuts in the clubhouse as the
team was blowing a 6 1/2-game lead with 12 to play, still won a creditable 90
games. 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 Hancock
who said that it was almost like our vets knew we were going to win the regular
season, and they were just cruising along, trying not to exert too much
energy," Wainwright says. "Like they almost knew they'd get here and
knew they would play great when they did."
St. Louis did
play superbly, closing out the Padres behind Carpenter, who allowed just three
runs in 13 1/3 innings in the series and proved his tenacity in the clincher by
limiting San Diego to two runs despite loading the bases twice in a 35-pitch
first inning. With apologies to the estimable Tom Glavine, Carpenter is the
only true ace left in the NL playoffs, precisely the kind of bedrock starter
upon which the church of postseason baseball has been built. "That first
inning, that wasn't typical of him," shortstop David Eckstein says. "He
probably threw more balls that inning than in the rest of the game. From then
on he gave us a chance to come back, let us break through late in the game.
He's everything to this club."
dominance was anticipated--Cards skipper Tony La Russa gambled by holding
Carpenter out of the last game of the regular season so he could go in Games 1
and 4--the series actually turned on righthander Jeff Weaver's five shutout
innings in Game 2, a delightful surprise along the lines of sticking your hand
in the pocket of a coat in October and finding a $20 bill you had left there
last spring. Weaver had been raw meat to lefthanded hitters--.357 batting
average, .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. Weaver
essentially had turned every lefthanded hitter into a slightly better version
of Ryan Howard. Padres manager Bruce Bochy loaded his lineup with seven
lefthanded hitters, then watched Weaver throw a glut of curveballs that they
couldn't handle before La Russa turned the game over to a green but impressive
bullpen. St. Louis relievers did not allow a run in 13 1/3 innings against San
Diego, and 26 of the 40 outs they got were logged by rookies.