- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Two weeks ago, astute observers thought they had the National League figured out.

The New York Mets clearly were head-and-shoulders above the rest of the pack. The St. Louis Cardinals clearly were headed nowhere.

But as those two teams prepare to open the National League Championship Series tonight at Shea Stadium, the only thing anyone can say with certainty is that nothing is certain anymore.

Everything that transpired over the last six months? It means nothing now, because neither of these teams seems to bear any resemblance to those that won their respective divisions during the regular season.

The Mets may still be the cream of the crop in the NL, thanks to the league’s deepest and most-talented lineup. But their aura of invincibility has taken a significant hit after a flurry of injuries slightly derailed their path to success.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, were given up for dead. After nearly suffering one of the worst late-season collapses in baseball history, they entered the playoffs with no momentum and little reason to believe they could turn things around.

“We had an up-and-down season,” Cardinals shortstop David Eckstein said yesterday at Shea. “But we’ve got a veteran-type club that understands how to go about playing the game. There were a lot of things that did not go right with us this year, but we were still able to right the ship enough to get into the playoffs, and that’s what this is all about.”

And so the Cardinals, a team that went just 83-78 during the regular season, now have a chance to go to the World Series. All they have to do is beat the Mets, who enter the NLCS with plenty of questions, particularly on their decimated pitching staff.

When Mets manager Willie Randolph began formulating a postseason rotation months ago — and why wouldn’t he, considering the monumental cushion this team had in the NL East — he figured he could count on three veterans to lead the way: Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine and Orlando Hernandez.

Only one will be in uniform tonight: Glavine, who will start Game 1 against Cardinals right-hander Jeff Weaver.

Martinez, the ace who was supposed to lead the Mets to their first championship in 20 years, has a torn rotator cuff and won’t return to the mound until the middle of next season, at the earliest. Then Hernandez, a savvy veteran with playoff experience, strained his calf the day before he was supposed to start Game 1 of the NLDS against the Dodgers and is out for the playoffs.

So the best team in the NL, one that went 97-65, will send the following three men to the hill behind Glavine in search of a pennant: John Maine, Steve Trachsel and (probably) Oliver Perez.

“Losing Pedro and losing El Duque certainly hurts us,” Glavine said. “It’s not the ideal situation going in. But that’s the responsibility of all 25 guys on our team to try and pick up the slack. Not just a starting pitcher here, or a hitter there. It has to be everybody.”

The Mets received a total team performance in their first-round sweep of Los Angeles, and that may be testament to the kind of tight-knit squad that general manager Omar Minaya and manager Willie Randolph built in the last two seasons. Like their counterparts in the Bronx, the Mets are loaded with star-power. Unlike the Yankees, these guys also have key role players making a difference.

“If you can get 25 guys who are unselfish and want the opportunity to experience something very, very special, that’s really where the chemistry comes in,” Randolph said. “Because you have 25 guys who have bought into your idea, your philosophy, your approach to playing the game. And they don’t really care who gets any of the attention or the accolades. We have a nice mix of those kind of people, and that’s why I think we’ve been so successful so quick.”

The Cardinals don’t necessarily fit that description. Sure, this is a veteran team that has advanced to its third straight NLCS. But it’s also a flawed team, one that relies heavily on MVP candidate Albert Pujols and Cy Young Award candidate Chris Carpenter (scheduled to start Game 3).

Pujols was the only regular to hit better than .300 or hit more than 22 homers this season, and Carpenter was the only starter with an ERA less than 4.00. Rookie closer Adam Wainwright has three career saves.

“When we’ve been good, we’ve been real good,” manager Tony La Russa said. “And we’ve had some periods where we have not been a good club. [But] when we struggled, we did the right things. We never quit playing. Nobody pointed any fingers. We just kept trying to fix it.”

And so they have a chance to do something no one could have foreseen two weeks ago: Beat the mighty Mets and steal the NL pennant.

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