Good story, great team

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

Did you hear about the team with 99 wins, the best record in baseball (by 4½ games) and home-field advantage throughout the National League playoffs already locked up?

Of course you didn't.

The reason is simple. That team isn't the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox. It isn't the Chicago Cubs. It doesn't feature Barry Bonds. It is way too good to be caught up in a wild wild-card chase.

That team is the St. Louis Cardinals, who may wind up with around 106 victories and no national profile.

Has there ever been a team this good that received this little attention?

"Outside of our fan base and the guys in this clubhouse, we're the only ones that believed that we'd be doing this right now," catcher Mike Matheny told reporters Monday as the team celebrated clinching the NL Central title.

Actually, outside the Cards' fan base and the guys in the clubhouse it is possible no one even knows the Cardinals did anything. These guys don't lead "Baseball Tonight" too often.

But St. Louis is the real deal. It has a loaded lineup, a balanced rotation and a three-pronged superstar set of Albert Pujols, Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds, none of whom, of course, will win NL MVP honors. In some ways, they are a victim of their day-in, day-out excellence.

These guys produce very few juicy news items. After reaching the playoffs three times (but winning just two series) from 2000 to 2002, the Cards dropped to third in their division last year. Instead of reworking the roster in the high-profile free-agent market, they chose to sit tight because manager Tony La Russa believed they were on the verge of becoming truly great with what they had.

How boring, which is why they entered the season out of the spotlight. But they have rewarded La Russa's confidence by winning the division going away, currently leading the much-hyped Cubs by 14 games.

It is a good story. But baseball is full great stories this season.

The Yankees-Red Sox soap opera/divisional race/history lesson dominates the national media focus.

There are the Dodgers' potential collapse, Ichiro's hit parade and a terrific three-team race in the AL West.

Then there is the free-for-all NL wild card race that features a host of subplots, from:

  • San Francisco's Barry Bonds becoming the third player to hit 700 career home runs, to:

  • The Cubs being the Cubs – supposed curse and all – even before the Nomar Garciaparra trade ratcheted up the attention, to:

  • A Roger Clemens-led Houston renaissance, the defending world champion Marlins and a lovable upstart in San Diego.

As a result, strong but relatively dull teams such as St. Louis (not to mention Atlanta and Minnesota) have won and won in a virtual vacuum.

The joke, of course, could come in October. The Cardinals may be easy to ignore right now, but any team that wins 100-plus games is a serious World Series contender. They boast a potent lineup, great defense and plenty of playoff experience.

Pujols, Rolen and Edmonds all are hitting better than .315 with at least 33 home runs and 110 RBIs. Although there is no recognizable ace, the Cards can trot out four pitchers – Jason Marquis, Jeff Suppan, Matt Morris and Chris Carpenter – with at least 14 victories.

These guys are 22 games better than .500 on the road.

And despite all the success, this group is not going to be satisfied just making the playoffs. They've done that before.

"We just need to make sure we're ready to go, man," said Pujols, who if it weren't for Bonds would have a mantle full of MVPs from his first four seasons. "Because whatever you do in the season, it doesn't matter if you lose in the first round or the second round. I've been there."

They aren't New York. They aren't Boston. They aren't Chicago or Barry or Roger or anyone else. They don't call a major media market home.

But they have been the best team in baseball this season. That still counts for something, doesn't it?

"This is the best team that we've had in the last four years," Pujols said.

Eventually they may force everyone to start paying attention.

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