St. Louis They limped into the postseason with 10 losses in their final 14 games and a 35-39 record after the All-Star break, testing the faith of their loyal fans.
But now St. Louis is only one step from the World Series, proving that mediocrity isn't necessarily a deal-breaker in the National League playoffs.
The Cardinals advanced to the National League Championship Series on Sunday night with a 6-2 victory over San Diego, riding the arm of Chris Carpenter to win the series 3-1.
"No matter how you get here, you're here," Carpenter said. "And once you get here, you have a chance."
With the New York Mets on tap in the NLCS, the degree of difficulty significantly increases. But the Cardinals didn't even need Albert Pujols to get a hit or Scott Rolen to be in the lineup to put away the overmatched Padres. If the 1927 Yankees were Murderers' Row, the '06 Padres are Loiterers' Row. They scored six runs in the four-game series and went 2-for-32 with runners in scoring position.
A four-run sixth inning off San Diego starter Woody Williams and reliever Cla Meredith gave Carpenter his first lead, and the popgun attack of the Padres was doomed. Carpenter won two games in the series but won't be available to start the opener of the NLCS on Wednesday because of the Cardinals' failure to sweep.
Since the Cardinals played San Diego in their final homestand, Carpenter was facing the Padres for the third time in 12 days. He suffered from control problems at the outset, throwing 35 pitches and walking home the first run in the Padres' two-run first.
"I came out in the first and was probably trying to do a little too much," Carpenter said. "I wasn't attacking the strike zone. That's not my game."
But Williams coughed up the lead on Ronnie Belliard's two-run single in the bottom of the inning, and Carpenter quickly found his groove thing. With the game tied 2-2 in the sixth, Williams walked Pujols leading off the inning before giving up a one-out RBI triple to Juan Encarnacion.
Meredith, who posted a 1.07 ERA this season, hit Belliard on a 3-2 pitch, then gave up two-strike run-scoring single to Scott Spiezio. Russell Branyan's wild throw home from third on Carpenter's bases-loaded grounder made it 5-2, and David Eckstein's suicide squeeze scored the final run.
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa started Spiezio at third in place of Rolen, who was 1-for-11 in the series and complained of a "fatigued" left shoulder after Game 3. La Russa was upset that Rolen had told him and the training staff that his surgically repaired shoulder was fine. Rolen admitted he misled the team after Game 3.
"He felt like he had an obligation to be out there, which, you know, is one of those rock-and-a-hard-place (situations) because it has been explained to him over and over again that we have other guys (available)," La Russa said. "But he feels like he's one of the core guys that should play. I don't think we could've asked him more often or more clearly."
While the Cardinals may have missed Rolen, Padres manager Bruce Bochy may have made out the weakest lineup in postseason history for Game 4. Journeyman catcher Josh Bard, who has 22 career homers, was the cleanup hitter, while Branyan, who has a .232 lifetime average, batted fifth. Bochy also sat ex-Cub Todd Walker, who was 0-for-9, and started rookie Josh Barfield at second base.
Nothing worked, and now the Cardinals will get a real test in the Mets, perhaps the only NL team that could make the playoffs if it played in the American League.