Zombie-like resilience propels Cardinals

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

ST. LOUIS – The Zombie Cardinals refuse to die. For months now, they have been punched, kicked, stabbed, shot, burned, garroted, blown up and eviscerated. They stand right back up and march on unabated. Nobody has found the formula to slay them.

And time to do so is running out for the Milwaukee Brewers.

They, too, left the St. Louis Cardinals for dead in September, and what do the Brewers see now but 25 men in their full zombie glory, terrorizing their antagonists, the latest horror a 4-3 victory Wednesday in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series that gave St. Louis a 2-1 advantage with the next two games at Busch Stadium. The feast came quickly with a four-run first inning and ended with Jason Motte(notes) throwing 99-mph peas past Brewers bats rendered helpless in losing the last two games.

The Zombies, meanwhile, stroll along happy to recite the laundry list of things that tried unsuccessfully to slaughter their season. A week into spring training, ace Adam Wainwright(notes) blew out his elbow. Matt Holliday(notes) needed an appendectomy after game No. 1. Ryan Franklin(notes) blew four saves in the season's first 2½ weeks. Albert Pujols(notes) broke a wrist. Center fielder Colby Rasmus(notes) left town in a controversial trade. David Freese(notes) suffered an ankle injury that general manager John Mozeliak said would be "season ending." They fell nine games behind the Atlanta Braves in the wild-card race in September. They faced two win-or-go-home games in the NL Division Series.

"When you go through things like this, you grow as a team and come close together," Freese said. "And when you add that with talent, it can get scary. Not zombie scary. Just scary."

Athletes love to talk about adversity. They can spin anything into adversity. Media doubts you? Adversity. Stub a toe? Crazy adversity. Couldn't sleep on the plane? Adversity at 35,000 feet is the worst kind of adversity. Unless, of course, you get swimmer's ear from the pool. Underwater adversity is the Boardwalk to all other adversities' Mediterranean.

The Zombies know adversity. The real kind.

[Related: Albert Pujols' bat has all but broken the Brewers]

They have no business being here, from the injuries to the deficits to their first-round draw of the 102-win Philadelphia Phillies, with their all-time-great pitching staff and home-field advantage. It was one thing to beat up the New York Mets and the Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros as September waned and the Braves suffered baseball anaphylaxis. To force a Game 5 against the Phillies, then roll into their ballpark and face the game's best pitcher and emerge victorious – well, that was the Zombies taking a hail of bullets, a trident to the chest and losing a leg, Monty Python style, only to somehow come out better than they were in the first place.

"It's almost like you're refining gold," outfielder Lance Berkman(notes) said. "You're boiling out the impurities.

"I've been saying this," he continued. "Maybe I shouldn't say it. But I feel like we have a great team. If you just forget about how we got to the playoffs – if you forget we had to make a crazy run – and just start looking … I just really feel like we have a great team."

The genesis came early, when doctors diagnosed Wainwright with a torn elbow ligament that needed Tommy John surgery. He stood in front of his teammates and implored them to forget about him, his production and what they'd be without him. "We've still got a season to play," he said.

[Slideshow: Check out photos from Game 3 of the NLCS]

They weathered his injury, plus those that hampered Holliday all season and Pujols' and Freese's through which they continue to play, and somehow the Zombies found themselves in first place in the NL Central as late as July 26. Then Milwaukee started cruising and they struggled, their nadir coming Aug. 24, when the Los Angeles Dodgers swept them in three days at Busch. Chris Carpenter, the pitcher who may best embody the stoicism that manager Tony La Russa preaches, stood up in front of his teammates and, amid the usual rah-rah chatter, said something so quaint and so unlikely, something that perhaps only a St. Louis Cardinal would say.

"Let's do this for the fans," Carpenter told them.

It resonated. The Cardinals won 23 of their final 32 games, including an 8-0 victory that, coupled with Atlanta's loss on the season's wild final night, cinched their place in the postseason. Turned out Nyjer Morgan(notes), the Brewers' chatty outfielder, was a tad premature with his early-September Twitter taunt: "Where still n 1st and I hope those crying birds injoy watching tha Crew in tha Playoffs!!!"

"I've been playing this game for a while, and you see some funny things happen," said Rickie Weeks(notes), Morgan's teammate. "Think about the Red Sox. Think about the Mets a couple years ago. We knew [the Cardinals] were a good team. What they did? It was impressive."

And it becomes more so by the game. Berkman tried to explain it. Yes, they're playing better. They're hitting better, and the Rasmus trade solidified their bullpen and rotation, and nobody vital outside of Wainwright is sidelined. It's more than that, he said. An immeasurable grit and solidarity.

"It's an interesting phenomenon," Berkman said. "I do think there's a psychological component to it. I can't explain to you what it is. But we – at least, I – feel it. You can sense it. The true essence of team is when you get into that sort of situation.

"We're not rallying behind a squirrel or anything like that."

[Y! Sports Shop: Show off your team support with playoffs garb]

The Busch Squirrel must've watched this game on TV or from a nook in the bullpen. Perhaps it figured the Cardinals are in plenty good hands. In most seasons, after all, La Russa concocts some sort of enemy around which he can rally his team, something he does better than any of his contemporaries. This year, he needed no such motivational nexus. It came about organically.

"We have nothing to lose," Carpenter said. "We had nothing to lose and we have nothing to lose now."

Actually, that's not exactly true. Maybe when the skeptics wrote them off in February. Or when the Brewers buried them in September. Even when the Phillies looked past them in the NLDS. But now? Now they're too close to a World Series to think of themselves playing with house money. They're too close, and they're too good, and with Randy Wolf(notes) and his career postseason ERA of 9.00 pitching Game 4 for Milwaukee and Jaime Garcia(notes) and his career home ERA of 2.17 going for St. Louis in Game 5 … well, this is real. Really real, really legitimate and, yes, really shocking.

Not only are the Cardinals standing and making an excellent Brewers team look mortal. They're doing it with the gas tank having read empty miles ago.

"We do have a never-die attitude," outfielder Jon Jay(notes) said.

Zombies always do.

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