First, the Cardinals ran through the 87-win, red-hot Padres like fire through freshly cut pine. Granted, the best-of-five series have sometimes produced some strange outcomes, but looking at the way the Cardinals won – with authority and enthusiasm – few could doubt that the better team won. But rather than elevating the Cards in our minds, this perhaps just lowered the Padres. "Ah, well, it's the National League, every team is the same, except for the Mets."
An NLDS snapshot:
Chris Carpenter, St. Louis' ace and one reliable starter, looks out of place on the mound staring at an 0-2 deficit on the scoreboard. These are not balls and strikes, these are runs that have been tallied against the reigning Cy Young winner in the first halfinning of play, through a succession of hits, and – most improbably – a bases-loaded walk. Now with the bases full of Padres yet again, Carpenter wipes beads of sweat from his face and looks for the signs, open-mouthed and seemingly uncertain. His curveball has betrayed him, falling out of the strike zone and failing to fool the hitters, who have been sitting dead-red and reseeding the outfield grass with a barrage of line drives and short flares.
He has to bear down. He can't allow this lineup to turn over, can't allow this game to get away so quickly. He ditches the curveball, for now. Josh Barfield fouls one off for strike one. That's a funny name, "Barfield." On the playground growing up, the other kids didn't even have to come up with a clever insult. They could just cry "BARRFField!" from the top of the monkey bars, and laugh hysterically. Okay, what's Yadier asking for? Okay. Barfield waits. Ha ha. "Barfield." Ball one to Barfield. Damn. Gotta concentrate. Gotta bear down. This game can be easy if you let it. Just pour one in for a strike. Barfield might be thinking walk, he's not going to do the pitcher any more favors, swinging at junk. Just pour one in. Strike two to Barfield! Okay, got him set up. Put it on the corner, and hope the ump calls it. Where the hell is his zone today? Barfield fouls it off, and "we'll do it again" like Mike Shannon always says. That guy is flat out hilarious. Sure, he repeats himself, like a lot of old geezers, and some of the stuff he says isn't that funny to begin with, but seems to get funnier and more true every time he says it. Like his line about "trying to sneak the sun past the rooster." Too true. Can't do that here. Barfield is the rooster. Here comes the rooster. Like that Alice in Chains song. I once held up a lighter with a few thousand other people while they played that song, even though I don't smoke, and I don't even really like them that much. Good song, though. I wonder if Mike Shannon ever listens to Alice in Chains. Barfield hits it! A bounder to little Davey, three outs! When did I stop breathing? I think I can start again, now.
Then, the Cardinals out-dueled the 97-win Mets in a heroic battle that saw B- and C-list players rise to the top of the marquee. For the Cardinals, Jeff Weaver and Jeff Suppan threw four quality starts while Carpenter threw only one, and could not get a win; the Mets' unlikely pitching heroes were Oliver Perez and John Maine, and its unlikely goat was Billy Wagner. The Mets' big boppers, Carlos Delgado and Carlos Beltran, have been on fire but the Cards have been employing a daring strategy of pitching to Beltran – an established "Cardinals Killer" – so they can pitch around Delgado and work on the struggling Wright. Despite the fact that they do this again and again, and that Wright never makes them pay – tallying only four hits and two RBI in twenty-five NLCS at bats – he continues to bat fifth for Willie Randolph. Meanwhile, Scott Spezio, So Taguchi, and Yadier Molina came up with gamewinning hits for St. Louis while Albert Pujols, Jimmy Ballgame and Scott Rolen – the MV3 – were held at bay. Pasting red carpet to one's bottom lip is a new fashion statement in St. Louis, which is about as unlikely as tying an onion to your belt, and possibly creepier than the Rally Monkey in Anaheim.
An NLCS snapshot:
Yadier Molina smiled as he swung the bat, or swung the bat as he smiled, a shy-but-irrepressible smile that would become a haunting image to Aaron Heilman, pitcher for the New York Mets. Because as soon as he began his swing, Yadier knew. He knew he had gotten his pitch, on the first pitch no less, and that he would get all of it.
The ball skied to left field, where Endy Chavez once again took off toward the wall, as he had done two innings before on a fly ball hit by Scott Rolen, launching his slender frame toward the poorly-padded wall, reaching backwards over the wall as if to start a Fosbury Flop, to keep the mouth of his glove pointed toward the softly falling baseball. On that catch, Endy's arm telescoped to its furthest extension, and the outer rim of his glove, inches beyond the actual reach of his fingers, clamped onto the widest part of the baseball as the weight of his body began pulling him back down to earth. The arm, glove, and ball – a classic depiction of a "snow cone" catch – reemerged from the inky shadows where no camera could see, robbing Rolen of a two-run home run.
Then, as now, the game, game seven to decide the National League pennant, was tied at a run apiece. Now, as Endy raced again to the wall, though, he slowed, and stopped, and turned before the baseball re-entered the field of the television camera's view. And all of St. Louis, watching the broadcast, smiled just as widely as Yadier, and began to shout as his hit landed in the bullpen.
For much of the media world, this is a series that the Mets lost – by stilted managing, by unlucky injuries to Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez, by a profound lack of clutch hitting, by youname- it – rather than a series that the Cardinals won. We, the Cardinal Nation, may be alone but we see differently.
We see a team that has shed its weakest parts, shed its fear, and bonded together into the true incarnation of a team – one that plays to each others' strengths, one that does not question the myriad lineups and matchups concocted by their manager, one that exerts every possible bit of energy and ability and pride in the pursuit of a good play, and keeps doing so until the game is won. Moreover, we are seeing latent talents some to the fore: in Yadier Molina's ability not just to hit, but to hit with power and authority; in Adam Wainwright's ability not just to pitch, but to close; in Jason Isringhausen's ability to morph from a man who makes his teammates and his fans nervous, to a man who counsels and cajoles from his crutches, a man who has ascended from "big brother" to "wise elder" by virtue of his incapacity.
We are beginning to understand the struggles of the regular season not as a descent into mediocrity, but as a once-good team that had a bad year. This understanding only comes in hindsight, and only comes by virtue of seeing the full talent and competitive spirit of this Cardinal team unleashed.
Having been through a few consecutive postseasons as fans, we can understand more aptly the underlying pain of the saying "catching lightning in a bottle." It is an apt description of the mystical force that drives these underdog teams who have won it all, from the curse-breaking White Sox and Red Sox, to the dragon-slaying Florida Marlins. Lightning is slippery, dangerous, and totally unpredictable. It is a negative force of pure electrons that seeks positive energy, and destroys it in restoring balance to nature.
These Cardinals have tried in each of the past three years to capture their best efforts, to peak together in energy and output, to bottle that lightning. In 2004, they mastered the regular season, but began to lose their stride as they fought through a grueling sevengame pennant-deciding series against the underdog Houston Astros, and then got shocked by the high-riding Red Sox. In 2005, they were zapped by the Astros, who got surprisingly good pitching performances from the likes of Pete Munro and Brandon Backe to shut down the Redbirds. In those years, lightning struck them down. In this year, however, they have made like Ben Franklin, braved the elements once again, and discovered the electricity that makes this team thrum.
This time, one day removed from another grueling seven-game pennant battle that was dominated as much by the whims of Mother Nature as by any of the two baseball teams, the Cardinals look battle-hardened as opposed to battle-weary. They have light spirits and lively bats, and the difference between this team's origins and those of its two predecessors may be partly able to explain. As underdogs, they have nothing to defend, no regular season greatness to live up to, so there is no energy wasted in looking behind them.
As do conquering Vikings, they have burned the ships that brought them to this shore because there is no going back to that place that they came from. We shall no longer speak of that place, that 78-loss graveyard. Their only hope of entering Valhalla, the pantheon of heroes, comes from victory on this battlefield, and to the last man they are prepared for this fight.