Pujols revives St. Louis with one swing
When the calendar says it's October and a team that won 83 games is on the verge of beating a team that won 97 games, that's more than just an upset. It's an upset that slips instantly into the realm of myth and legend.
OK, we know what the 718 area code is thinking. Yeah, it's true that upset hasn't happened yet. But it's dangling out there now for those St. Louis Cardinals, just above the horizon, just on the other side of a late-night plane ride to New York.
It's dangling out there now, just one win away, after the Cardinals' 4-2 Game 5 victory over the Mets on an electrified Tuesday night in St. Louis. A night when the Cardinals beat the second-winningest pitcher in postseason history. A night when they packed a 3-2 NLCS lead with them on the charter back east.
They still need to win one more time to complete one of the most unlikely journeys to the World Series ever. But they have Cy Carpenter lined up to start Game 6 on Wednesday. And they have Joltin' Jeff Suppan ready to start a Game 7 on Thursday.
So it's fair now to contemplate what this team has within its grasp. Feel free to go ahead and contemplate along with us at home.
The Mets finished this season 32 games over .500. The Cardinals staggered in at five games over .500. And when one team is 27 more games above sea level than another, it's supposed to win.
In fact, history tells us it almost always wins.
According to the intriguing Web site, whowins.com, this is baseball's 13th meeting, in a theoretically-more-fair best-of-seven series (World Series or LCS), between teams separated by that many games in their friendly neighborhood standings column. The only three times the underdog won, historians everywhere were taking notes.
You had the 1906 Cubs (a ridiculous 116-36) tumbling to the crosstown White Sox (93-58) in the World Series. You had the 1954 Indians (111-43) falling to Willie Mays' Giants (97-57) in the Series. And you had the 2001 Mariners (116-46) crumbling in the ALCS at the hands of those four-time champs from the Bronx (95-65).
And that's it. Until now.
But in some ways, especially if you ignore the motley state of the Mets' rotation, this one feels even stranger, even more unlikely.
Great as those Cubs and those Indians and those Mariners might have been, at least they all lost to teams that won 93 games or more themselves. But the Mets -- an outfit that has been the National League powerhouse since about April Fools' Day -- are one game from being mugged by the 13th-winningest team in baseball.
By a team that won 83 games.
By a team that almost made an 8½-game lead over the Astros disappear in the last week and a half of the season.
But the great thing about October (not for the Mets, of course) is that it's like a giant eraser board. All that stuff that went on all year, all that stuff that went down the last two weeks of the season, "It doesn't matter now," Cardinals catcher Gary Bennett said.
"It doesn't matter what happened in those eight-game losing streaks," Bennett said. "Or limping in with the Astros on our tail. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter how we got there. ... We're there now, and it doesn't matter."
For the Cardinals, October has been one gigantic healthy dose of amnesia. No playoff team needed to forget the regular season more than this team did. And when you watch them play these days, it's suddenly a lot easier to remember 2004 and 2005 than to recall September.
"The postseason is just different from everything else," said Albert Pujols, who abruptly canned his Mr. Media Antagonizer act and morphed back into his Mr. Charm persona. "I don't know why that is. ... I feel like I'm so focused -- every pitch, every play I make. It's so different. It's something I just can't explain."
One thing that was different about October for the Cardinals was that, before Tuesday, Pujols hadn't driven in a run in six straight games. That's something that happened only once during the entire regular season.
But one thing about Sir Albert: He's always one swing away from changing just about everything. And he did it again.
As he rocked in the batter's box against his favorite 290-game winner, Tom Glavine, in the fourth inning, the Mets had just burst to a 2-0 lead. And the pitcher they'd entrusted to guard it hadn't allowed a run in any of the 16 1/3 innings he'd pitched in October -- leaving the great Mr. Glavine only two-thirds of an inning from equaling the longest postseason scoreless string of the last quarter-century (by Pedro Martinez in 1999).
Pujols, meanwhile, hadn't homered since his second at-bat of the postseason -- 28 at-bats and 14 days deep in his rearview mirror. And he hadn't knocked in a run since a single off David Wells 24 at-bats and 12 days earlier.
But to paraphrase a certain Cardinals catcher, that didn't matter.
Glavine hung a 2-2 changeup. Pujols laser-beamed it into the first row in left field. The Cardinals were back within a run. And the sound that filled Busch Stadium was so loud, it might have jolted a few farmers out of bed a couple of hundred miles down the road in Willow Springs.
A year ago to the day, Pujols launched a home run off Brad Lidge that was so dramatic he talked for weeks afterward about literally hearing the sound sucked out of Minute Maid Park. But somehow, he claimed he never heard what happened this night, after this home run -- the eruption of a sound that would have made a space shuttle launch sound like a bird (a red bird, naturally) chirping.
"Did I hear it? Not really," Pujols said. "I was just feeling good that we got on board, that we answered back."
But if he wasn't conscious of how different the baseball Earth appeared to spin after this one flash of his magic bat, he was the only one.
For the next two hours, Busch Stadium was a wall of sound -- unlike anything witnesses had heard in this place before.
"Tonight," Cardinals closer Adam Wainwright said, "was the loudest I've ever heard anything, ever."
But the volume button was only part of this story. From the moment Pujols finished rounding the bases, nothing about this game seemed the same.
Glavine had a two-hit shutout in the fourth inning before Pujols dug in against him. Over the rest of his night, eight of the last 10 hitters he faced reached base.
And on the other side of the diamond, you could practically see Pujols' teammates feed off his energy, the way they have a thousand times before.
"Yeah, we've seen it more than once," injured closer Jason Isringhausen said. "It seems like, when Albert goes, we go."
By the time the Cardinals finished their next turn through the lineup, they'd taken a 3-2 lead, on RBI hits by Ronnie Belliard and Preston Wilson, neither of whom was around for the first half of this team's season.
One more turn through the order and it was 4-2 -- on the Cardinals' second pinch-hit home run of the series, this one against left-hander Pedro Feliciano by a left-handed hitter (Chris Duncan) who had almost twice as many strikeouts (14) as hits (8) against left-handers this year.
But when the Cardinals look back on this series, that's the kind of unlikely happenstance they'll find scattered all over the box scores. So Taguchi (two HR all year) homered. Pitcher Jeff Suppan (one HR in his life) homered. David Eckstein (two HR this season) homered. And now this.
And there was more. Much more. Jeff Weaver -- a guy who went 8-14 with a 5.76 ERA this season -- outdueled Glavine, spun six terrific innings and won his second game of this postseason. In the past 30 years, he's just the third pitcher with that many losses to win two postseason games (David Wells in 1996 and Steve Carlton in 1983 being the others).
Then, when Weaver called it a night, in marched Frontier League escapee Josh Kinney to strike out three of the first four hitters he faced.
"The bigger the game," Kinney said later, "that's what I love to do. That's what's fun -- the competition."
And finally, to get the last four outs, Tony La Russa waved in Wainwright, a guy who had never saved a game in his life until the final week of the regular season. So of course, he struck out Jose Valentin to end the eighth with the tying run on base -- meaning opposing hitters are now an insane 0-for-31 against the Cardinals in this postseason with two outs and runners in scoring position.
Then Wainwright stampeded through a 1-2-3 ninth -- giving him almost as many saves in this postseason (two) as he had in the season (three).
"This is more fun than I've ever had playing baseball, by far," Wainwright said. "Coming into a situation like that, you realize that when you're a little kid, it's always two outs, bottom of the ninth. You never practice in the backyard, saying, 'All right, first inning.' The bases are always loaded with two outs in the ninth when you daydream. To be able to live that dream is really fun."
As he stood on the rubber in the ninth, one out from closing to within one victory of his World Series dream, Wainwright suddenly threw his transmission into reverse and backed off behind the mound, staring toward his final victim, Jose Reyes.
"I just needed to step back and kind of feed off the crowd a little bit," he said. "I just needed to take a moment to step back, feel it get loud and then say, 'OK, let's go.'"
Then he marched back up to the top of his mountain, blew a third strike past Reyes and dissolved into a red sea of euphoria.
The St. Louis Cardinals were one win away -- one win from something astonishing and historic. One win away from the World Series.
Three weeks ago, the only kind of history these Cardinals seemed likely to make was history's most historic collapse. Now they're working on a whole different page in the history book.
Only one team in history -- the 1973 Mets (82-79) -- ever won fewer games than this team and made it to a World Series. No team has ever won fewer games and won a World Series.
So who saw this coming?
"This," said Wainwright, "is crazy."
"Now, let's just hope," said Bennett, "we can keep the craziness rolling."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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