Sleeping beauty

Tim Brown
Yahoo! Sports

LOS ANGELES – There is, of course, the possibility the St. Louis Cardinals weren't that good to begin with, a notion that doesn't exactly complement the parade and the name on the World Series trophy but dovetails with the 83 wins and the boundless wonder they beat the Mets in the National League Championship Series.

"That's beautiful," Scott Rolen said.

There is a natural hesitancy in contending the best team hadn't won – or a lesser team had – because baseball, of all games, ensures itself against accidental championships, first by its 25-man nature and then by its daily slog and six-month season and expansive playoffs. Yet the Cardinals …

"It is the greatest thing I can think of," Rolen said.

He was smiling. Really smiling.

"That's the most beautiful thing in the world," he said, "to have a bunch of guys come together in the postseason, maybe as the worst team that's in the playoffs, and win a championship. That's achievement."

And, almost by the day now, they are confirming the magnitude of it.

St. Louis returns to Detroit on Friday night for the first of three games, interleague play picking up where it left off in October with Cardinals against the Tigers. The reminder of it brought a nod from manager Tony La Russa, who said, "Exciting time, last time we were there. Spur some memories. Get to see Jim (Leyland)."

La Russa spent the early part of the week discussing the perception that his team lacked the drive it once had (and not disagreeing), having offered himself as the cause the week before. So, the theory was posed that a return to Detroit might serve to stir something in the Cardinals.

"I'm not sure," La Russa said. "What we've got to do is concentrate on this year's competition. If it does anything to distract us, it's not good. The Tigers are playing a lot better than we are, so …"

Rolen shook his head dismissively.

"We were 1-1 there," he said.

By any measure, the Cardinals have endured a miserable seven weeks. They raised their banner at about the same time they shelved their ace, this after three starters off last year's team – two of which made World Series starts – signed free-agent contracts elsewhere. Their three prominent run producers have been neither prominent nor productive. Right in the middle of the ungainly baseball, they had a relief pitcher die on a St. Louis highway, which was very sad, and then they learned how he died, which was even sadder.

They are six games under .500. They are 8½ games behind the Milwaukee Brewers. They have scored the fewest runs in baseball, despite scoring 19 runs in three games against the Dodgers this week and losing two of those games anyway.

They are a different team, particularly so as they wait for Albert Pujols' bat to warm and Chris Carpenter's elbow to heal. Championship teams – all teams – almost always are anymore, which is why baseball hasn't had a repeat champion in six years, why it almost certainly won't for a seventh year and why every champion since the 2002 Angels has had a worse record in the season following its title.

The Cardinals had an amazing run in October, living to Rolen's definition of achievement, holding to each other through a seventh game in New York, playing sturdily while the Tigers went to pieces, rejoicing on the infield of a brand new ballpark, at the end being led by the tiny shortstop.

It was great stuff. And then it was time to play another season.

"I knew this season was going to be really tough, a huge challenge," David Eckstein said. "Whatever the reasons, if you could pinpoint it, you'd be able to stop it."

His 2003 Angels lost 85 games and finished in third place in the AL West, 19 games behind Oakland. There were injuries, one to him. There were big years that, in retrospect, were career years. The things that fell right didn't fall again in the same place.

"In your head, you really think it's going to change," Eckstein said. "You really think, 'This is the day it's going to turn around.' And you don't come off of that until the magic number appears and you're still in August."

Adam Kennedy, who hit three home runs in a single playoff game in 2002, lived 2003 alongside Eckstein. Now he is again at second base to Eckstein's shortstop, again straining to meet the standard of the previous season, only this time he didn't get the World Series part.

"There's luck involved," Kennedy said. "Breaks. Calls. Career years. A lot of things going on. That's what makes it fun and interesting. And then, the day after, you're almost thinking, 'How can we get back?' Just because of how much everybody loves a winner."

The Cardinals are not yet a quarter of the way through their season after. They believe they will hit, hope they will pitch and probably know the Brewers are not infallible. So, they'll go to Detroit, file into a clubhouse that once fit them quite well and maybe something there will awaken their games.

It probably won't be the Tigers, though. They are 24-16. They look fine.

"It'll be a good challenge for us," Rolen said. "This club hasn't played well and this club hasn't proven itself yet."

And who knows? Maybe this club still has something beautiful left in it.

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