Cards' shuffled lineup part of winning hand

La Russa mixed youngsters, veterans

pitching, defense key, too

October 29, 2006|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,Sun reporter

ST. LOUIS -- When St. Louis Cardinals closer Adam Wainwright threw his hands toward the sky after striking out Detroit Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge late Friday night, the improbable turned official. The afterthought Cardinals had just won their 10th world championship and first in 24 years.

Wainwright ignited a celebration within rocking Busch Stadium that quickly spread throughout St. Louis, the state of Missouri and other Redbird Nation outposts.

Elsewhere, most of the country greeted the news with indifference, something that marred the Cardinals-Detroit Tigers matchup since Game 1 on Oct. 21.

Yet to those within baseball, or those who simply enjoy following it, a Cardinals championship brought reaction: universal head-scratching.

How did this happen? How did a team that won just 83 games in the regular season - with a record-low winning percentage for a World Series champion - and nearly blew a seven-game lead with two weeks to play get this far?

How did a club that was 16th in ERA in 2006, and with an injured closer, several beat-up position players and an inexperienced bullpen survive October, a month that is supposed to expose baseball's fraudulent ilk?

How did they survive with a .248 postseason batting average that included a 3-for-15 Series performance by the game's best player, first baseman Albert Pujols?

Well, for one, they followed the trite postseason blueprint once they made the playoffs. They won with pitching (a 2.74 postseason ERA) and defense (four errors in the Series, half as many as the Tigers). The Cardinals also understood October pressure.

"We have enough guys here that have been through postseason experience and that might have helped out," Cardinals outfielder Preston Wilson said. "We've got so many personalities that have kept us grounded as a team and focused that we really stayed on track."

Part of their success also had to do with getting healthy at the right time. Veteran closer Jason Isringhausen was shelved for good, but the others who dealt with injuries, shortstop David Eckstein, center fielder Jim Edmonds, third baseman Scott Rolen and Pujols, were ready to play by October.

Then there's manager Tony La Russa, whose baseball acumen often gets hyped by the willing media. This year, though, was probably his finest performance, juggling lineups continually while attempting to mix inexperienced kids with aging superstars. La Russa's tactical prowess was rarely needed this month, but his leadership ability came shining through.

Case in point: Before Wednesday's scheduled game, the Cardinals' clubhouse was open to the media for a half-hour. For nearly 20 minutes, most of the Cardinals stayed in a players-only dining area, while hundreds of reporters waited. Then La Russa got wind of what was happening. He stormed into the dining room, waved his arms, said something, and walked away. Moments later, most of the Cardinals strolled into the main clubhouse for interviews. Situation fixed.

"I think he's a genuine person as far as he really stays consistent with his approach to the game," Edmonds said. "What you see is what you get, basically. He doesn't like all the hoopla and all that stuff going on. He just wants to concentrate on his job so the rest of us can be free to do what we do best."

If he weren't already considered among the upper echelon of managers, he is now, joining Sparky Anderson as the only two to win World Series titles in both leagues.

"I have such a respect and affection for Sparky that I believe he's one of the greatest, not just managers, but baseball men, ambassadors for the game," La Russa said. "It's such a great honor, he should really have this alone."

Perhaps what made the most difference for the Cardinals' run, however, is that their opponent in each round demonstrated a significant flaw.

The San Diego Padres couldn't hit, scoring just four runs in four games.

The New York Mets put runners on base, but couldn't deliver a big blow when necessary. They left seven runners or more on base in six of the seven National League Championship Series games, including 11 in crucial Game 7.

And the Tigers couldn't field. Their pitchers made an error in each game, setting a dubious World Series record. Those miscues led to seven unearned runs.

To their credit, the Cardinals seized the opportunities and never panicked, perhaps a byproduct of enduring a 12-17 stretch to end the season and turning it into an 11-5 postseason.

Now, incredibly, they'll get rings in April.

"I think some of the stuff we went through in the regular season, at the end of the season, at the beginning of the postseason, all of that helped us get to where we are today," Wilson said. "Nothing was easy and we earned every ounce of it." dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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