No house of cards
ST. LOUIS – Shhhh. Can you hear them coming?
Chugging and churning and huffing and puffing up the side of the World Series mountain are the St. Louis Cardinals, the little engine that could. They're climbing, slowly but steadily, taking it the proverbial one game at a time en route to the ultimate destination.
The National League champion Cardinals nearly ran out of steam just trying to get to the playoffs, but they made it. Barely.
They weren't supposed to threaten the San Diego Padres in the NL Division Series, but they ouplayed them. Thoroughly.
They weren't supposed to challenge the New York Mets in the NLCS, but they demoralized them. Completely.
And they certainly weren't supposed to beat the best team from baseball's most competitive division, the Detroit Tigers of the American League Central. But they are beating them, soundly, two games to one after a 5-0 victory in Game 3 at chilly Busch Stadium on Tuesday night.
And now, the little team that could is two games away from winning the World Series.
St. Louis' recipe for success – sublime front-to-back pitching and flawless defensive execution – is ripped straight out of the playoff textbook. You might beat the Cardinals, but they won't beat themselves. And if you give them any help, as the Tigers did with Joel Zumaya's two-run throwing error in the seventh inning, they will make you pay.
The series is far from over, but St. Louis, with its 83-78 regular-season mark, would be the worst team record-wise to win the World Series – worse than the 1987 Minnesota Twins, who went 85-77. But Jim Edmonds, who struck the big blow with a clutch two-RBI double in the fourth inning, said as far as the Cardinals are concerned, their underdog status doesn't even exist.
"I don't think it's ever come across in the locker room or anybody's ever said a word about it," Edmonds said. "We're just excited to be here, and we're just trying to focus in on winning games."
If the feared Albert Pujols is the Cards' heart, then the gritty Edmonds is their soul. The eight-time Gold Glove center fielder, who missed time early in the season with groin and shoulder injuries before post-concussion syndrome shelved him for a month in August and September, was the one pulling them up the mountain in Game 3.
How could a man who's in constant pain load an entire team on his back? Is he finally healthy in the last light of the season?
"I can't answer that question," Edmonds said. "I'd have to lie."
Edmonds has always had a knack for the clutch, but not even his manager, Tony La Russa, fully understands it.
"However he does it," La Russa said, "we have to teach it to the other guys."
The other guys are doing just fine. Chris Carpenter, St. Louis' motor and the winner of Game 3, held the Tigers to just three hits over eight dominant innings. Afterward, he echoed what seemed to be the top-to-bottom sentiment among the Cardinals' 25-man roster.
"We pride ourselves in coming to the park every single day [to] battle, grind, take one pitch at a time, one at-bat at a time, and never stop, play hard nine innings, go out and play from the first pitch to the last," Carpenter said. "And as long as you can go home and look at yourself in the mirror, that you did everything you could and played as hard as you can, the outcome doesn't really matter."
The outcome thus far has been quite good. But as well as things are going for St. Louis, it's not perfect. The club is leaving too many runners on base (20 in Game 3), but at least it's finally getting them there. The Cardinals hit just .179 as a team through the first two games of the series, but grinded out eight walks Tuesday in addition to their seven hits. The Tigers could only scratch out three.
"We made some mistakes," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "Things kind of fell apart. When you get two or three hits in a game you always look bad, that's just the way it is. You look bad."
It would be easy to dismiss an 83-win team as an undeserving champion, should this continue, but much of St. Louis' beauty falls outside the box score. It's David Eckstein and Yadier Molina fouling off tough pitch after tough pitch. It's Pujols snaring a Placido Polanco liner. It's So Taguchi making a sliding catch on a Magglio Ordonez fly ball. It's Carpenter, as he repeats ad nauseam, "executing" his pitches.
Each St. Louis pitcher has, for the most part, executed. Rookie Anthony Reyes threw eight innings of four-hit ball in Game 1. Jeff Weaver was solid if unspectacular in giving the Cardinals a chance to win Game 2, and Carpenter was his dominant self in Game 3. Next on the mound for the Cardinals is Jeff Suppan, the NLCS Most Valuable Player and one of baseball's best pitchers in the second half.
None of this is lost on Leyland.
"How do you get to the World Series?" Leyland said. "You get there with good pitching. And these are two teams that have very good pitching. … The Cardinals, because of some injuries from time to time, have been a little shaky, but obviously Weaver picked them up, Suppan has been tremendous and Carpenter is always tremendous."
Edmonds, the old warrior, insisted St. Louis would keep its even keel.
"It's amazing," he said, "This team is just – we've got a bunch of characters in there, and they don't really get concerned with being up 2-1, being down 2-1, what the situation is. I think that's been our best trait. … At the end of the year here, everybody is just going and playing."
And chugging. And churning. And huffing. And puffing.
And, slowly but surely, nearing the top of the mountain.