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They're The Best (So Deal with It)
November 06, 2006
During the regular season, the Cardinals won plenty of acclaim for losing; then came October, when a cast of unlikely heroes helped dominate defenseless Detroit and silence, for good, the doubts about their postseason worthiness
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November 06, 2006

They're The Best (so Deal With It)

During the regular season, the Cardinals won plenty of acclaim for losing; then came October, when a cast of unlikely heroes helped dominate defenseless Detroit and silence, for good, the doubts about their postseason worthiness

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Beneath the tequila and the tears, beneath the miles of athletic tape and the vials of cortisone that held them together through their near death of a September, the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals left us with an indelible lesson about October baseball. To call the Cardinals the worst world champion in history--their .516 regular-season winning percentage was lower than that of all 101 previous world champions, not to mention that of a dozen teams this year--is the killjoy's translation of their earned place. In the future every modestly credentialed postseason team will regard them as something else: the most opportunistic champion. � With their 11--5 run through the three-pronged postseason, including a shockingly easy five-game dismissal of the heavily favored Detroit Tigers in the World Series, the Cardinals, they of the 83 regular-season wins, rendered moot any arguments about their worthiness. What the 2004 Boston Red Sox, with their recovery from a three-games-to-none ALCS deficit, did for comebacks, the '06 Cardinals did for second chances. "It's not the best team that wins," Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said as his club celebrated its 4--2 Series-clinching win last Friday at Busch Stadium. "It's the team that plays the best baseball."

Only two world champions have overcome a larger victory gap in the World Series than the 12 wins that separated the Cardinals and the Tigers: the 1954 New York Giants (14 fewer wins than the Cleveland Indians) and the 1906 Chicago White Sox (23 fewer victories than their crosstown rivals, the Cubs). Then again, in many ways the October version of the Cardinals was virtually unrecognizable from the April-through-September edition.

There was closer Adam Wainwright--a rookie who had only one save in his life before Sept. 27--finishing the World Series and a breakout postseason by whiffing Brandon Inge. In 2003, after he was cut from the U.S. Olympic qualifying team, the 25-year-old righty had wondered whether he had the mental toughness to make it in professional baseball; in October he struck out 15 batters in 9 2/3 scoreless innings. There to embrace Wainwright after the final out was catcher Yadier Molina, whose .216 average during the regular season was higher than only Tampa Bay's Jonny Gomes among the 200 batters who came to the plate at least 450 times. Naturally Molina led all players in postseason hits (19).

There was righthander Jeff Weaver, who ranked 76th out of 80 qualifiers for the ERA title (5.76) and had bounced among five teams with a losing record (86--101) and hangdog indifference. On Friday, Weaver could be seen weeping in the arms of his brother, Los Angeles Angels rookie pitcher Jered Weaver. Earlier that night Jeff had pitched eight masterly innings, going longer in an outing than he had all year.

And there was shortstop David Eckstein, owner of a .487 OPS in the first two rounds of the playoffs and dead last among all batting qualifiers in RBIs (23) this season, being hoisted off the ground by La Russa after Eckstein drove in four runs in Games 4 and 5, including the go-ahead scores in each game. It was the 5'7" Eckstein, not some hunky home run hitter, who drove off with the yellow muscle car for being named the Fall Classic's Most Valuable Player. And so, too, it was the churchgoing, teetotaling Eckstein gleefully getting a shot of tequila poured down his throat in the clubhouse by teammate Scott Spiezio. Eckstein last had so imbibed in 2002, when he and Spiezio won a world championship with the Angels. "Right now," Eckstein said in the jubilant clubhouse, "I don't feel a thing."

For this October, that was a first. After a near catastrophic September, when the Cardinals nearly coughed up a seven-game lead with 12 to play, the team's sense of purpose in October was manifest in their undersized shortstop. Indeed, Tigers lefthander Kenny Rogers might well have been describing Eckstein in the words he employed when he tried to explain away that suspicious smudge on his pitching hand in Game 2: dirt, sweat, spit and rosin.

Eckstein missed most of St. Louis's 12--17 September because of a strained left oblique muscle, a strained left hamstring and a strained left shoulder. By Game 6 of the NLCS against the Mets, trainer Barry Weinberg suggested to Eckstein that he was too banged up to help the team. "You won't be able to live with yourself if you go out there and aren't ready to play," Weinberg said.

"Barry," Eckstein replied, "I won't be able to live with myself if I don't play in this game. I'm playing."

Eckstein didn't miss a postseason inning, though every game necessitated a five-hour pregame routine that mimicked a scarecrow getting stuffed back together. Eckstein took 20 minutes of ultrasound treatment on his shoulder, 10 minutes of heat-pack treatments, 10 minutes of acupuncture, occasional cortisone shots and special taping of his shoulder, rib cage and hamstring, in addition to the usual stretching exercises, video study and batting and fielding practice.

"He was significantly weak in his shoulder," says St. Louis assistant trainer Greg Hauck, "and there's no way a guy could go out there and play [like that]. And he was like, 'It's the World Series.'"

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