It’s far from panic time in St. Louis

Over the last week of the season, the St. Louis Cardinals looked nothing like the group that blitzkrieged the National League throughout the summer. In fact, they better resembled the team on the other side of the state.

Now, isn’t that a beautiful way to introduce your pick for World Series champion: compare it to the Kansas City Royals.

As inelegant and downright backward as it seems, rest assured that it is not a joke. Just because the Cardinals played like the Royals this week by losing six of seven, including an ugly season-ending sweep against Milwaukee, doesn’t make them Kansas City. All of this, actually, looks rather familiar.

Because in 2006, a seven-game losing streak bled into the last week of the Cardinals’ season … and they won the World Series. And four years before that, the Angels went 4-7 in the last week and a half … and ended up with rings. And the 2000 New York Yankees were the losingest of losers in late September, dropping seven straight to end the season and 13 of 15 overall … and, well, you know where this one goes.

Photo Chris Carpenter

So forget the late-season swoon and instead remember what the Cardinals have: the best 1-2 punch still around in Chris Carpenter(notes) and Adam Wainwright(notes), with their almost indistinguishable Cy Young résumés, plus a bullpen that, if we’re talking about September, saw Jason Motte(notes), Blake Hawksworth(notes), Kyle McClellan(notes) and Dennys Reyes(notes) pitch 36 2/3 innings, allow 15 hits, two runs and strike out 36, and, of course, Albert Pujols(notes), the best player in baseball, and a supporting cast that far exceeds what surrounded him in ’06.

The Cardinals are fine. More than it.

Allow, then, some room to breathe, oh harried and hyperventilating St. Louisans. Good things await. When it comes to the 2009 postseason, the baseball world will revolve not around the billion-dollar stadium in New York nor the dreadlocked wonder of Tinseltown but on a city in the Midwest whose team has …

1. More championships than any not named the Yankees. This would be No. 11 for the St. Louis Cardinals, and they’ve got a miserable road to get there. The swoon cost St. Louis home-field advantage, which isn’t an enormous issue, because the Cards are only a game better at Busch Stadium than on the road.

The greater problem are their opponents. Los Angeles, in the first round, is perhaps the most talented team in the league. Philadelphia is the defending champion. Colorado is the hottest group. The Cardinals fall somewhere beneath each in those respective strengths.

Altogether, St. Louis is the best team in the NL. Pujols’ 1.108 OPS in September was better than his season’s average, and Matt Holliday(notes), Yadier Molina(notes), Ryan Ludwick(notes) and Skip Schumaker(notes) are all hitting. Back, too, is Troy Glaus(notes). In what role is unknown, but if he’s healthy, he’s an option.

Tony La Russa, naturally, is limiting his by keeping 12 pitchers for the short series. As little sense as that makes, La Russa has earned the benefit of the doubt. He wins, and he took a St. Louis team that just last year looked as though it was rebuilding and, with the deft maneuvering of general manager John Mozeliak, turned the Cardinals into …

2. The greatest challenge to the New York Yankees. Vegas likes the Yankees, and with good reason. Their 915 runs led the major leagues. So did their 244 home runs and .839 OPS, which was 33 points higher than the next team. Even Alex Rodriguez(notes) reached 30 homers after hip surgery that a decade ago was career threatening.

Because the new Yankee Stadium is the size of a studio – the apartment kind, not the TV or movie – it takes the Yankees’ pitching questions and minimizes them. Now, it isn’t to say CC Sabathia(notes) blowing up like he has in his two postseasons won’t doom the Yankees. They can just overcome it better than most.

And with the Yankees’ bullpen now a strength – seriously – any questions about Sabathia or A.J. Burnett(notes) or Andy Pettitte(notes) (an uncharacteristic 17 walks vs. 16 strikeouts in September and October) don’t fade but aren’t nearly as pointed. Everyone from Phil Coke(notes) to Alfredo Aceves(notes) to Jonathan Albaladejo(notes) to David Robertson(notes) (an American League-best 13.0 strikeouts per nine) to the killer final two innings, Phil Hughes(notes) and Mariano Rivera(notes), whose ERAs out of the bullpen are 1.40 and 1.76, respectively.

Good luck, AL Central champion. Especially if it’s …

3. The Minnesota Twins, whose pitching rotation is skipping out of whack like an old 45 record player. If they do beat the Tigers and Rick Porcello(notes) in the one-game playoff that starts at 5:07 p.m. ET today, their reward is a rested and ready Yankees team that won 103 games in the regular season and froths for some postseason success after eight straight championshipless seasons.

And the Twins? For all their gusto in even being here, there is the pitching issue, and that of Minnesota’s misery against the Yankees this year: a .719 OPS – and that’s with the injured Justin Morneau(notes) hitting three home runs against New York. This is not as much an indictment on Minnesota as it is a paean to a Yankees team that looks strong and ready, although …

Photo Edwin Jackson

4. If they do have to face the Detroit Tigers, things could get testy. Edwin Jackson(notes) has No. 1 stuff, Justin Verlander(notes) goes in Games 2 and 5 on full rest and Porcello will come off the biggest win of his career in the play-in game.

Of course, the Tigers still can’t hit, and the only player on the team who can spent the night before the most important game of the season making his best effort to end up on “Cops.” However you look at it – from the reprehensible laying his hands on his wife to getting three-times-the-legal-limit sloshed 13 hours before a game to being a recidivist drunken idiotMiguel Cabrera(notes) and his actions will haunt the Tigers eventually. If not already.

Get him into rehab. Get him help. Get him something. Most of all, as our Stewmaster so eloquently said, get him off this team.

Even if it means the Tigers don’t have a chance …

5. To face the Boston Red Sox in the AL Championship Series, where they’ll be again after beating the Angels for the third straight year in the division series. They’re too good, too experienced and too loaded with top-end pitching for any other outcome, even if they have to steal a game at Angel Stadium.

No team features the pitching depth of the Red Sox, whose Jon Lester(notes)-Josh Beckett duo is the AL’s equivalent to Carpenter and Wainwright. Add Clay Buchholz(notes) and Daisuke Matsuzaka(notes) (2.22 ERA in four starts since returning from the disabled list), and it’s frightening that the Red Sox can stack on top of them a bullpen with Jonathan Papelbon(notes), Billy Wagner(notes), Takashi Saito(notes), Daniel Bard(notes), Hideki Okajima(notes) and Ramon Ramirez.

Their hitting plays fine, though David Ortiz(notes), Mike Lowell(notes) and J.D. Drew(notes) going a combined 17 for 98 against the Angels this year is troublesome. Oh, well. Hitting isn’t going to win the Red Sox the World Series this year. They can’t go bat for bat with the Yankees and perhaps the Twins and definitely …

6. The Los Angeles Angels, who have turned into … a powerful team? Sort of, yeah. The Angels finished second to the Yankees in runs scored this year, and when their hitting slumped in September, their pitching more than picked up for it with a team ERA of 2.96. Scott Kazmir(notes) is back, Joe Saunders(notes) and Ervin Santana(notes) are resembling their 2008 selves, John Lackey(notes) is primed to get $80 million in free agency and Jered Weaver(notes) will pitch Game 2.

And yet something about the Angels doesn’t feel right. Perhaps it’s the bias gleaned from these last two postseason series against the Red Sox, and even the two playoff appearances before that. It’s unfair to hold the Angels’ past sins against them, especially seeing what a different team this is. It’s also difficult to trust a team that entrusts Kevin Jepsen(notes) with late-inning relief work, no matter how good he’s been. Bullpens win in October, and that’s what …

Photo Manny Ramirez

7. The Los Angeles Dodgers are banking on, among other things. Jonathan Broxton(notes) and George Sherrill(notes) and Hong-Chih Kuo(notes) and Ronald Belisario(notes) and Ramon Troncoso(notes) – it really is a lockdown group, and it’s frightening to pick the Cardinals to win the World Series considering that’s the opposing relief corps in the first round.

Were their starting pitching not so meek, the Dodgers could easily be prohibitive favorites. They’ve got the bats, even with Manny Ramirez(notes) in a prolonged slump. His last home run came Sept. 18. In his 12 games since, he’s 5 for 33 with 13 walks and 11 strikeouts. The on-base percentage is excellent. The slugging percentage and golden sombrero he took over the weekend against Colorado – not so much.

If Manny is Manny – the one who comes around when his ovulation calendar says so – the Dodgers will be tough to beat. He doesn’t look like that Manny now. Not even close, as the …

8. Colorado Rockies can attest. That four-strikeout collar Ramirez took against Ubaldo Jimenez(notes) and Rafael Betancourt(notes) shows Colorado’s capability in shutting down the best. Jimenez could strike out 20 the way the Phillies swing, and Aaron Cook(notes) is a perfect Game 2 complement, with his monster ground-ball tendency. This has the look and feel of 2007, when the Rockies trounced the Phillies in the division series.

Only there are the issues of Jorge De La Rosa’s(notes) injured groin (he’ll test it out today) and how the Rockies match up against left-handed pitching (moderately well, as their .765 OPS ranks 11th in baseball) and whether they’ve got a postseason run left in them after steaming to the NL wild card.

Colorado’s lineup goes deep and strong, with a pair of 20-plus-home run hitters (Ian Stewart(notes) and Clint Barmes(notes)) in the Nos. 7 and 8 slots, a rarity in the NL. Though bop for bop, knockout blow for knockout blow, extreme power for extreme power …

Photo Jimmy Rollins

9. Nobody beats the Philadelphia Phillies. Not until they are dethroned not just from their title as scariest team – Jimmy Rollins(notes) and Shane Victorino(notes) and Chase Utley(notes) and Ryan Howard(notes) and Jayson Werth(notes) and Raul Ibanez(notes), oh my – but their championship mountaintop.

Granted, this is a different team because the Phillies remembered what it meant to work for victories. They’ve anguished through them as Brad Lidge(notes) makes ninth innings his personal Fourth of July and leaves Phillies fans reaching for the nearest nitroglycerin pill.

How the Phillies enter the postseason with their closing situation unresolved is a failure by manager Charlie Manuel. He had six months to figure out how to handle Lidge, and if Mr. Perfect from last year wasn’t right by September, that should’ve been enough sign. The Phillies’ closing situation is a mess, and that’s a horrifying feeling shared by …

10. The St. Louis Cardinals, who, remember, are the 10th Degree and thus still the World Series pick. Despite closer Ryan Franklin(notes) allowing 21 baserunners in 8 1/3 September innings. After spending the year defying age and stuff and everything that for the first 10 years of his career kept him as nothing more than a middling swingman, Franklin returned to his old ways down the stretch, and if anything frightens St. Louis, it’s that.

But the Cardinals, unlike the Phillies, aren’t exploring options. Franklin is their man. They will thrive or dive with him, his baserunners and his ability to induce tears of fright in grown men, and they will not waver.

Because this is October, and for all the great qualities teams have, one of the most overlooked is conviction. It is about belief. The Cardinals, even if they’ve lost six of seven, still own it. They believe in Ryan Franklin as their closer, just as they believe Chris Carpenter or Adam Wainwright or someone will earn the World Series-clinching victory, and no one is going to tell them otherwise.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Oct 6, 2009