By Thomas Boswell
Friday, October 20, 2006
NEW YORK -- Stand up and salute the St. Louis Cardinals. Mere cheers aren't enough to celebrate the worst team ever to reach the World Series. After all, doesn't the least amount of talent, most injuries and largest adversity surmounted imply biggest heart?
If ever a pennant winner grabbed our affection with its grit and not its glorious stars, this is the one. So what if, with a National League Championship Series at stake, Albert Pujols had one RBI in seven games and Chris Carpenter botched both his starts. Who needs 'em? Not these awfully wonderful Cards. Why, they've got household names such as Yadier Molina, Jeff Suppan, Ronnie Belliard and Adam Wainwright to lead them to a 3-1 victory Thursday in one of the most thrilling Game 7's ever played.
Anybody can win with tons of talent. The Yankees have done it forever. What a bore. Anybody can win titles with hard-hitting catchers such as Jorge Posada, Yogi Berra or Bill Dickey. New York teams can always afford to put all-star boppers behind the plate. Look at the Mets, losers Thursday night. Every time they make an October run they have a big-bat backstop such as Gary Carter, Mike Piazza or, this season, .318 hitter Paul Lo Duca.
Instead, try doing it the hard way, the Cardinal way. Try staking your pennant chances on a .216-hitting defensive specialist of a catcher such as Molina, whose two-run, game-winning homer in the ninth inning struck Shea Stadium dumb.
What the Cards just pulled off, winning without visible means of support, is a vastly tougher and nobler trick than the standard October fare -- winning because you're just plain good. St. Louis built this its series-clinching win on seven two-hit innings by Jeff Suppan, and a deft RBI squeeze bunt by humble second baseman Belliard. Go on, find someone who predicted that Suppan, for the second time in three years, would win a Game 7 of the NLCS. In '04, he beat Roger Clemens.
Yet how appropriate. After all, who's been carrying the banner for the Cards this entire month? Has it been all-stars or Hall of Fame candidates? Or journeymen and obscure gentlemen who earn their keep with their gloves? If the youngest of the three catching Molina brothers and the little-known Belliard drove in all the runs in this winner-take-all game, then that simply mirrors this entire October for the Cards. "We got here because we persevered," Suppan said.
"We kept saying that if we got to October, we'd be a dangerous club to play. In a seven-game series, a team that won 83 games, like us, can beat a team that won 97 [like the Mets]," said Cards Manager Tony La Russa, who until this series, has been the master of October disaster with his heavily favored juggernauts. Now, finally, he gets to taste the underdog joys that so many teams have stolen at his expense. Now he can say only one team ever won fewer games in the regular season than his Cards -- the '73 Mets won with 82 -- yet reached the Series. And that New York team had Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Jon Matlack.
"It's a tough way to compete, but it's very exciting," La Russa said of the long-shot role. "The [Shea Stadium] crowd was going nuts. The place was on fire. But in the big spots when the game could have gotten away from us, Supe got out of it."
Because the Cards have needed so much resilience all season, they were accustomed to the kind of body blows they had to overcome in this game. Above all, they had to forget the sixth-inning image of Mets left fielder Endy Chavez robbing Scott Rolen of a two-run homer. That preternatural grab, snagged at triceps height above the fence, ice cream cone style, was as great a fence-scaling grab as any in the history of postseason play. Willie Mays's catch in the '54 Series doesn't count since Mays is measured on the interstellar, not the terrestrial scale. Henceforward, if the ex-Nat Chavez wants to make any more such plays, he will have to clear his flight path with the control tower at La Guardia. Otherwise, NORAD may start scrambling jets.
Yet ignoring such adversity, and worse, is what the Cards do best. In this Series, Pujols had one RBI. But Molina had six and utility man Scott Spiezio added five. Even So Taguchi, who only batted three times, had a single, double, home run and three RBI. Rookie Chris Duncan, tiny David Eckstein and Suppan himself each contributed an unlikely solo homer in this series, duplicating Pujols's production. As for this game's save, it went to the rookie Wainwright who'd never saved a game in his short career until the last week of September. As a collective heart attack gripped the Midwest, he loaded the bases, bringing Cardinal killer Carlos Beltran, who has seven postseason homers against St. Louis, to the plate. With three pitches, the last a perfect, knee-locking curveball, the minimum-salary rookie Wainwright struck out Beltran, and his $119 million contract, looking.
To appreciate this Cards team properly, you have to look back exactly 365 days to their defeat at Houston's hands in the NLCS last year. Then, St. Louis had tons of talent, 100 wins worth. This year, vast amounts of that raw ability are gone as the Cards limped to wire, barely avoiding the worst late-September collapse in history. Yet this Cardinal lost patrol has staggered into the Series to play the Tigers, their AL equivalent, another team that ended the regular season in a state of near collapse.
Few grasp how depleted the Cards truly are compared to the '05 team. Then, the Cards' rotation included Mark Mulder, Matt Morris and Jason Marquis. Jason Isringhausen anchored the bullpen with Julian Tavarez setting him up. In their final playoff game of '05, the Cards' starting lineup included outfielders Larry Walker and Reggie Sanders, hitting fourth and fifth, as well as Mark Grudzielanek and Abraham Nuñez. Now, all are gone due to free agency, retirement or injury. What did the Cards get in return for these nine front-line players? Not much.
They've been replaced with six rookies, two other players with barely a year in the majors, two ex-Washington Nats (Preston Wilson and Gary Bennett) plus assorted castoffs (Jeff Weaver, 3-10 as an Angel) and journeymen (Juan Encarnacion, Spiezio, Belliard). Remember Jim Edmonds, Rolen and Eckstein? They're still around. Edmonds plays center field despite lingering effects from post-concussion syndrome. Rolen is a shadow of his all-star self with five screws in his shoulder. He's even been benched recently. More parts of Eckstein are hurt than are healthy. "The toughest player I've ever seen," La Russa said.
If you don't think these five-games-over-.500 Cards are really the worst Series team ever, consider this. Only four other World Series teams have finished less than 15 games above .500. So it's a short list. The '00 Yanks and '87 Twins both won the World Series. The '97 Indians had Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, David Justice and Matt Williams. Case closed.
How do the Cardinals win? With players such reliever Josh Kinney from the River City Rascals in the independent Pioneer (Nobody Wants You) League and Taguchi, a Punch-and-Judy hitter for 10 years for the Orix Blue Wave in Japan. So what else is new? Don't forget the best Cards pitcher so far in October -- Weaver, who flopped in the playoffs for the Yanks ('02) and Dodgers ('04) before getting salary-dumped in disgust in July by the Angels. At that time, he was the worst starting pitcher in the AL. Now this reclamation project, who's 2-1 in the postseason (a 2.08 ERA), will start Game 2 in Motown.
When it comes to these Cards, we're not talking supernatural. But it's getting pretty close. What would push the issue over the edge into the magical? If La Russa somehow manages to beat his Detroit buddy Jim Leyland, we'll need a whole new category of marvelous backhanded compliments to pay the Cardinals.
After all, the distinction of Worst Team Ever to Win the World Series certainly has a ring to it.