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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.
You start 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 Cardinals."
A metaphysical 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."
If Carpenter's 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.