IT SEEMS FUNNY NOW, THE CONCERN THAT LINGERED OVER St. Louis's opening months. The angst over Albert Pujols's contract was justifiable—but the worry about him between the lines, during his 27-game homerless drought, now seems foolhardy. After all, this was no mortal; this was the Machine, baseball's model of metronomic consistency, stoic in appearance, steady in performance. And what do you know? After two months of double plays and disappointment, Pujols got back to being Pujols. A glance at his final stats (a .299 average, 37 home runs, 99 RBIs) may reveal a failure to meet familiar, round-number benchmarks—in a season in which he missed 15 games with a wrist injury—but not a failure to be that familiar, dominating mid-lineup force.
The arc of the Cardinals' season is enhanced by hindsight. How better to appreciate the contributions that kept St. Louis above .500 during Pujols's spring swoon, like Lance Berkman's eight homers and .765 slugging percentage in April; or Matt Holliday and Jon Jay taking batting averages above .340 into June? How about Kyle Lohse (7--2, 2.13 ERA before June) and Jaime Garcia (1.93 ERA in his first 10 starts) salvaging a rotation that lost Adam Wainwright for the year to Tommy John surgery and Chris Carpenter temporarily to his own bout of mediocrity? What were then lightly regarded as hot streaks are revealed, upon reflection, as season-saving lifelines.
No part of the regular season will age better than its final month. After sitting in first or a close second in the NL Central for most of the summer, an August scuffle left St. Louis staring up at a 10½-game deficit in the wild-card race with 31 games remaining.
Then it happened. The Braves bottomed out with a 9--18 finish, and the Cardinals rose to the occasion with a September surge that saw them go 18--8. The rotation—led by Lohse, Garcia and Carpenter—had a 2.85 ERA. The bullpen was bolstered by the ascension of new closer Jason Motte and a controversial July trade that dealt away promising centerfielder Colby Rasmus for relievers Octavio Dotel and Marc Rzepczynski as well as key starter Edwin Jackson. And the offense upped its August scoring by 18%, aided by a second-year outfielder named Allen Craig, who matched the resurgent Pujols's every blast, and Rafael Furcal, a midseason pickup at shortstop.
And so Atlanta and St. Louis entered the season's final night tied for the National League's final playoff spot. The Cardinals threw Carpenter against the last-place Astros, and he delivered a two-hit, 11-strikeout complete-game shutout. With that, the team retreated to its clubhouse to watch the Braves and the Phillies tangle in extra innings, awaiting either the wild-card crown or a one-game playoff. About an hour later, with a 4--3 Philadelphia win, St. Louis's improbable resurrection was complete. "We had nothing to lose," Carpenter said. "People were telling us we were done." In the clubhouse Cardinals sprayed one another with champagne and Budweiser—a mist of celebration where there were once clouds of doubt.