- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 29, 2006

ST. LOUIS — No, it wasn’t a dream. The St. Louis Cardinals really did win the World Series.

A team that won 83 games during the season, played sub-.500 ball from May through September and back-doored its way into the playoffs as the least-accomplished of the eight remaining participants somehow emerged as the champion.

St. Louis did so by trouncing the heavily favored Detroit Tigers in five games, making fools out of every expert who was convinced this World Series would swing in the other direction.

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“If we believed what people were saying about us, we wouldn’t be standing here today,” said David Eckstein, the Cardinals’ pint-sized shortstop and series MVP who embodied his club’s unlikely triumph.

Few picked St. Louis to win, certainly not in such convincing fashion.

“We had nothing to lose the whole time. We were always the underdogs,” rookie closer Adam Wainwright said. “I don’t think anybody picked us to win one game throughout this whole thing. It’s kind of like a reason for us to play harder, and we did that. We played great the whole time.”

The key for the Cardinals? Forgetting about 83 wins and the lack of star power and the supposed pitiful state of the National League. The Cardinals played better baseball over the last four weeks than any team, and that’s why they — not the Tigers, Yankees or Mets — will be holding a downtown victory parade today.

This is the new model for success in baseball. It used to be about winning 100 games during the regular season, clinching in mid-September, earning home-field advantage and then using sheer talent to beat the opposition in October.

Now, it’s about simply getting to October, whether as division champs or the wild card, and then turning on the switch when it really counts.

Obviously, the Cardinals were not a great team during the regular season. They won two more games than the inaugural Washington Nationals did in 2005.

But that doesn’t mean they didn’t have the pieces necessary to make a run at a title. They had one of the game’s most-feared sluggers in Albert Pujols, a spark-plug leadoff man in Eckstein, reliable veterans in Scott Rolen and Jim Edmonds and an up-and-comer in Yadier Molina. They had a group of role players in Preston Wilson, So Taguchi and Scott Spiezio who seemed to come through whenever called upon. They had a talented, if inexperienced, bullpen and three quality starting pitchers in Chris Carpenter, Jeff Suppan and Jeff Weaver.

“That’s what it takes to win a championship,” Wilson said. “It takes everybody stepping up. It’s not just one or two guys. When you look over our whole postseason, you can take every man on our roster and say that they did something to help us win. When you get contributions like that up and down the lineup, from your bullpen and from your starters, that’s a championship team.”

And that’s what most recent World Series champions have looked like. Commissioner Bud Selig loves to tout the fact that seven different franchises have won the sport’s last seven titles (the Yankees, Diamondbacks, Angels, Marlins, Red Sox, White Sox and now Cardinals).

There’s more to it than just parity, though. For the most part, the teams that have won haven’t boasted more than a couple of stars. Rather, they have won because they have had deep lineups and benches and good starting pitching.

Of the last seven champs, there have been three wild-card winners and one 83-game winner, teams that did just enough during the regular season to give themselves an opportunity in the postseason.

And that’s all it takes anymore. Get into the playoffs, then let it all hang out.

“Once the season’s over, you start fresh,” Weaver said. “It’s all about who’s the hottest, who believes in each other and who goes out there and plays the hardest. And I think that struggle towards the end just refreshed us. Once it was all done, we were able to take a deep breath and go out there and play for the second season.”

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