ST. LOUIS – For all of Tony La Russa's preening and Machiavellian machinations, the mood of the St. Louis Cardinals runs in lockstep with Albert Pujols'. He is their id, ego and super-ego internally and their barometer externally, and throughout the National League Championship Series, he had carried himself with all the vivacity of an old man who didn't get his prune juice.
So then, how about this rainbow and pot of gold: Pujols smiling, laughing – dare we say giddy – after the Cardinals ambushed the New York Mets in the pivotal Game 5 with a 4-2 victory Tuesday night that put them one win from the World Series. Grandma was wrong. The best medicine for a cantankerous boy isn't chicken soup; it's a victory that might have never happened unless he hit a home run.
Pained by a strained hamstring, and even more by the death of a dear uncle, Pujols reached out for a Tom Glavine changeup and yanked it 371 feet, a cracker's length over the glove of Mets left fielder Endy Chavez. To that point, Glavine had held the Cardinals scoreless for three innings and been gifted a 2-0 lead, and, having thrown 18 consecutive shutout innings in the playoffs, he nearly escaped the Pujols at-bat when a foul ball landed just out of first baseman Carlos Delgado's reach.
"We all had visions of getting shut out again by Mr. Glavine," La Russa said. "He was working us over."
What seems the case with the Cardinals, though, never is. They seemed to have a distinct disadvantage with the reborn Jeff Weaver pitching Game 5, and he twirled six wonderful innings. They seemed to insert the wrong pinch hitter when they sent Chris Duncan to face left-hander Pedro Feliciano – Duncan was 8-for-47 this season against lefties – and he popped a home run to right field for a 4-2 lead. They seemed to have a conundrum at the back end of their bullpen when Jason Isringhausen went down with a season-ending injury, and now rookie Adam Wainwright, who kept the Mets off balance for the final four outs, looks more than capable of filling in.
And Pujols, grin and all, seemed to be happy.
"I'm in a bad mood right now," he said.
Funny. Pujols bought himself room to joke with his first home run and run batted in of the NLCS. Losing would have meant the Cardinals headed to Shea Stadium on Wednesday needing to beat the Mets twice in New York. Even with ace Chris Carpenter starting Game 6 and pseudo-ace Jeff Suppan in line for Game 7, and the Mets countering with Tweedle-Dee (John Maine) and Tweedle-Dum (Oliver Perez … Darren Oliver … Oliver Oliver?), the prospect of consecutive victories to win a postseason series on the road was harrowing at best.
Now they can smell a World Series matchup with the Detroit Tigers.
"In the playoffs, it always seems that you catch that second wind," Pujols said. "That's why we're at where we're at right now.
"You need to be greedy. … It doesn't matter how much money you get, how much you make in this game. If you don't win a World Series for you and your fans and your family, it's nothing."
For all of the above, Game 5 pulsed with the intensity missing from the series' first four. With two runners on in the eighth, La Russa called on the 25-year-old Wainwright. He stepped on to the mound and removed himself twice, shaking all the nerves from his gangly, 6-foot-7 body. He worked Jose Valentin, who drove in the Mets' two runs, to a two-strike count, then unfurled a curveball that bent over the outside corner for a called strike three.
"That's a big situation," Wainwright said. "So exciting. I was in the minor leagues last year."
Before the ninth, Pujols walked over to Wainwright as he has done in all of his previous save opportunities – "He didn't want to jinx anything," Wainwright said – and asked for three outs. He got them, in a row, and the Cardinals celebrated accordingly, retreads Weaver and Preston Wilson, independent-league scrap-heap pickup Josh Kinney, trade acquisition Ronnie Belliard together with the rest of the Cardinals who slogged through the regular season.
Remember, this was an 83-win team. The Cardinals finished 14th in baseball in runs scored and 16th in earned-run average. They nearly blew a seven-game lead in the regular season's last 10 days. They went on three losing streaks of seven games or more.
And with one more win – one that would render all that irrelevant – they'll reach the World Series with the second-worst record in history, better than only the 1973 Mets, who were 82-79 and lost to Oakland in seven games.
"Didn't really matter how we got in," Weaver said. "It's getting in. And it's whoever's hot in the postseason."
In this series, it depends on the night. Momentum doesn't exist. After losing Game 1, St. Louis won Game 2, and after losing Game 4, the Cardinals answered in Game 5. Consecutive losses do not fly in October.
"If you don't go to the World Series or win it, you haven't had a good year," Pujols said. "This is not over. We need to make sure we finish strong. Our season has been like a roller coaster. Up and down, up and down. We need to be happy. We're excited we're here in the playoffs."
On Oct. 17 last year, Pujols was at his finest – and perhaps happiest. Curt and annoyed by all of the attention lavished on him in the NLCS, Pujols changed course when prodded by Major League Baseball, then gave a good reason for the questions: He had hit a home run off Brad Lidge that challenged all gravitational laws. Though it was a momentary reprieve – Houston won Game 6 and advanced to the World Series – it was Pujols' signature moment, one that captured his brilliance.
Since this postseason began, Pujols' stoicism exceeded his usual steeliness. St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bryan Burwell lambasted Pujols for his attitude in Tuesday's newspaper, prompting Pujols to tell Burwell about the recent death of his uncle, Antonio Joaquin dos Santos, who helped raise him. Pujols said the grief has weighed on him.
Still, however Pujols carries himself – no matter what bothers him and what tears at his heart – the Cardinals follow. He is not the whole team, as so many thought. The Cardinals have Weaver and Wilson, Kinney and Wainwright, Carpenter and Suppan, Belliard and David Eckstein and Scott Rolen and Juan Encarnacion and Jim Edmonds and another dozen or so players.
Pujols is just the Cardinals' conscience, their heart and their compass.
"And I'll be happy (Wednesday)," he said. "If we get a win."