- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 28, 2006

ST. LOUIS — It’s hard to explain, really, how a St. Louis Cardinals ballclub that by all rights shouldn’t have even been playing in the first week of October (let alone the last) stormed the Busch Stadium infield last night in celebration of the franchise’s first title in 24 years.

Very little about these Cardinals screamed “World Series champions.” They went a pedestrian 83-78 during the regular season, giving them fewer wins than any previous trophy-winner in the event’s 106-year history. They possess few legitimate star players, aside from all-everything slugger Albert Pujols and ace hurler Chris Carpenter. And they nearly suffered the worst September collapse in baseball history, frittering away an 8-1/2 game division lead before somehow hanging on the last day of the season.

Maybe this was simply St. Louis’ time. Fans in this baseball-crazed town had been waiting since 1982 to hoist the franchise’s 10th World Series trophy, and there was no reason to wait any longer. With a 4-2 victory over the Detroit Tigers in Game 5 last night, the Cardinals at long last stand atop the mountain again, owners of a title few outside these parts could have predicted.

“I don’t think we ever saw this coming,” center fielder Jim Edmonds said. “But when you put a group of guys like we have together and they go out and battle, anything can happen. We just kind of proved that.”

They certainly did, getting clutch hits just about every night this month from a different player, getting some gutsy relief work from an inexperienced bullpen and getting some downright spectacular pitching from their entire rotation.

Jeff Weaver became the latest addition to that list last night, authoring perhaps the best outing of his eight-year career. The journeyman right-hander, acquired in midsummer after flaming out in Southern California, tossed eight stellar innings in the bitter cold and wind to forever earn his place in St. Louis baseball lore.

Weaver — who along with fellow starters Carpenter, Jeff Suppan and Anthony Reyes posted a combined 2.63 ERA in 16 postseason games — saved his best for last. He struck out nine and allowed only four hits, one of them a two-run homer to Sean Casey.

Rookie closer Adam Wainwright then finished this dominant series off, striking out Brandon Inge with the tying runs on the corners, to send the sellout crowd of 46,638 into pandemonium.

“There were times during the year where we had doubts if we could put it all together,” said Tony La Russa, who joined Sparky Anderson as the only managers to win World Series in both the American and National Leagues. “But no one ever lost the desire to go out and play Cardinal baseball. We thought if we could somehow get into the playoffs, this could happen.”

It happened, even if it wasn’t always pretty.

If nothing else, this series will be remembered for shoddy defense, something that cost the Tigers in every game. Detroit’s pitchers were primarily to blame — they committed one error in all five games — but so was Inge, who was charged with two errors on one disastrous play at third base in Game 1 and then picked up another last night that helped the Cardinals take a 1-0 lead.

With a runner on third and two outs in the second, Inge went sprawling to snag David Eckstein’s broken-bat smash down the line. If only his throw was as good as his catch. Instead, it sailed wide of Casey at first base, allowing Yadier Molina to score and putting Eckstein (who won series MVP honors after hitting .364 with four RBI) on second base.

“It was unreal out there,” said Eckstein, the hero in Game 4. “No one believed in us, but we believed in ourselves.”

Still, there was a sense early on that St. Louis was going to waste its opportunities. La Russa’s club somehow managed not to score in the first inning despite coaxing three walks and two wild pitches out of Tigers rookie starter Justin Verlander. The 23-year-old right-hander looked all out of sorts during a brutal, 35-pitch inning, but he walked off the mound pumping his fist after getting Ronnie Belliard to ground out and strand the bases loaded.

Meanwhile, Detroit’s offense was about to come to life, thanks in no small part to another error. With one out in the fourth, Magglio Ordonez’s routine fly to right bounced off the heel of Chris Duncan’s glove as the sellout crowd collectively groaned. Moments later, Casey drilled Weaver’s first-pitch fastball into the right-field bleachers, and just like that, the Tigers had a 2-1 lead.

It was short-lived, because Verlander gave both runs right back on the night’s third (and most egregious) fielding gaffe. With runners on second and third and one out, Weaver bunted the ball right back to the mound. Verlander had an easy forceout at third, but faster than anyone could make a crack about another error by a Detroit pitcher, he airmailed the ball past Inge.

“Quite frankly, we just didn’t do things that were conducive to winning a World Series,” manager Jim Leyland said. “I just only hope that nobody forgets the job that we did, to go from 71 wins [last year] to the World Series. I hope that nobody totally writes us off that we’re not a good team, because we are.”

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