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St. Louis Cardinals keep putting bite in underdog’s role in World Series Game 1

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ST. LOUIS

This baseball-batty city got the night of World Series celebration it deeply deserved after watching two months of the most marvelous, nearly miraculous stretch-run play in the history of a sport that this town worships.

In a taut pitchers’ duel, won by Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter, 3-2, St. Louis served notice in Wednesday’s Game 1 that this World Series is unlikely to be a lopsided Texas affair. In order for Rangers President Nolan Ryan’s prediction of a six-game championship for his boys to come true, they better get crackin’. In the last 23 World Series, the Game 1 winner took the title 19 times.

The Cardinals, who would be one of the most amazing long-shot champions in history, have karma, too. As mere wild cards they may not “deserve” home-field advantage. It’s a gift bestowed on them by a National League win in the All-Star Game, not by any victories of their own. In fact, they had six fewer than Texas. But that won’t change where these games are played. Twenty of the last 25 World Series have been won by the team with the home edge.

“We have to win the National League-style games if we’re going to win this thing, and this was a National League-style game — 3-2, good pitching, good defense, timely hitting,” said vet Lance Berkman, who singled in two runs. “I don’t think we want to get into a gorilla-ball-type series with these guys.”

Berkman added: “With Carp pitching, we feel like we are going to win every time. You want to win the games that your ace pitches.”

“I love you, Lance,” quipped Carpenter, who at least didn’t use Berkman’s nickname, “Fat Elvis.”

Oh, they’re a loose group. Even Manager Tony La Russa, once the most uptight Series manager in captivity before his underdog title run with the ’06 Cards, has mastered the October zen of laid-back storytelling, no-pressure-on-us performance art. Everybody here says, “Look how happy tight-lipped Tony is. He’s almost having fun.” Inside, he’s a knot. But his players don’t know it. Once, they did. That’s all that matters.

Seldom has there been such a nationwide, mortal-lock consensus that one team would win a World Series — Texas. That alone should set off alarm bells in a format as deliciously capricious as short-series October baseball. The Rangers are first-rate, but hardly immortals. Yet they carry a ’27 Yankees level of pundit predictions on their shoulders, plus Ryan’s unnecessary pick.

The sheer blunt force of the Cardinals’ binge of clutch play to reach this series deserves enormous respect. Something special is happening. You could feel it as they stormed past Atlanta in the final week of the regular season. They faced down the Phillies and Roy Halladay, behind Carpenter, 1-0, in a winner-take-all NL Division Series game. They feel like they’ve played 50 straight World Series-pressure games. For now, they’re inoculated.

The Cards’ fairly mundane regular season numbers may prove a deceit. Are they still that team at all? Now, their brittle summer bullpen is rebuilt and cast iron. La Russa used five relievers for the last nine outs after six efficient Carpenter innings. Be grateful; he may yet use nine for nine outs.

The Cards’ big-time heart-of-the-order fellows are all hot simultaneously. And the Cards’ kids are producing. Hometown third baseman David Freese got a double and scored to break a 2-2 tie. “Pretty cool,” he said. “Being from St. Louis, it’s unreal.” Please, don’t wake ’em up.

The game-winning hit was a perfect blend of La Russa and a Cards cog of major value who is little known — Allen Craig, who only had 200 at-bats in the regular season, put had a star’s .917 OPS when he played. With two on, two out and the score 2-2 in the bottom of the sixth, La Russa pulled Carpenter, who’d only thrown 87 pitches, and pinch-hit Craig.

“Cold night. Sitting on the bench. World Series, Facing [reliever Alexi] Ogando — not a great situation,” La Russa said. “But Craig has a history of having great at-bats in tough spots. Looks like he’ll have a real good career.”

“What a luxury,” Berkman said. “He’d hit cleanup on a lot of teams.”

That, perhaps, illustrates how under-the-radar the Cards have been as they climbed. Or simply how astronomical their opinions of each other have become as a result of a streak that’s becoming mythological to them. Berkman, with 358 career homers, thinks Allen Craig is a cleanup man in disguise. For real, he does. Well, at least for now.

Those of us who predicted, or more likely simply assumed, a Texas win in this series because the Cards have already overcome such ridiculous obstacles, may soon be delighted to discover that a rewrite is mandatory. And it might be the best sort of script makeover: the one where the best team turns out to be, by far, the best story, too. We’re not there yet. But this game is exactly how things would start if that is where this plot is headed.

This crowd of 46,406, all in Cardinal red, though in windbreakers on a raw windy night, was as proud any that has ever gathered to cheer any of the 18 St. Louis teams that has reached a World Series. Their purpose: to demonstrate their shocked gratitude to a team that was presumed dead and now haunts this postseason like a cheerful ghoul that can’t be slain.

As long as the Redbirds remain underdogs, how can any ill befall them? If they could be 10½ games out of the wild card on Aug.  25, if they had to beat the Phillies back-to-back to win the NLDS, and if they had to knock out the broad-shouldered Brewers in their own home park, why would the bats of the heavily favored Rangers prove too much for them?

For the Cards, the final innings were set up exactly as they had hoped, with their poised Series veteran Carpenter getting the better of nervous C.J. Wilson, who walked six, hit one man, allowed 11 base runners and continued a worrisome 1-5 record in postseason. Carpenter is now 8-2 in postseason. In a Game 5 rematch of “aces,” would this be a mismatch?

With a win in hand, and their odd “home-field” advantage, the Cards and their Best Fans in Baseball can now anticipate a long delicious Series.

Whatever they’re doing, it’s sure been working since Aug. 25. Could it last until Oct. 25?

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