|ESPN.com: MLB Playoffs 2011||[Print without images]|
ST. LOUIS -- As the taxi pulled away from the hotel and headed toward Busch Stadium on Thursday afternoon, the man behind the wheel couldn't help but laugh. He saw the baseball fans in their red shirts and red hats and their ear-to-ear smiles and shook his head. But not until he heard an amplified voice from a nearby pep rally say "Cardinals" and "World Series" in the same sentence did he say something.
"Cards ain't gonna win no World Series," he said. "These people drinking too much Bud. I don't know how that team got this far."
At that point of the day, it was a rare drop of skepticism in a sea of St. Louis believers. After beating Milwaukee by a combined score of 16-6 in the previous two games, everyone in the Gateway to the West seemed to be elbowing their way aboard the Cardinals' World Series bandwagon. Albert Pujols couldn't be stopped. The once-disastrous bullpen had evolved from a liability to a strength. David Freese had evolved into a star. And Tony La Russa seemingly couldn't push the wrong button if he tried.
|Octavio Dotel wasn't the only person in St. Louis wondering what happened in Game 4.|
On Thursday, the only thing standing in the way of a 3-1 series lead and a chance for a champagne-filled Friday night was Milwaukee starter Randy Wolf, who had never won a postseason start and was torched for seven runs last week in Arizona. And when Matt Holliday and Allen Craig poked opposite-field home runs in the second and third innings, it seemed the Cardinals could do no wrong. The cabbie and anyone else doubting the Cardinals were fools.
But then the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals happened. The Redbirds went 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position, the bullpen wasn't flawless, Wolf spun a seven-inning gem and all of a sudden St. Louis lost 4-2 and the series was tied at two games apiece. Now, a St. Louis team seemingly on the verge of celebration must win Game 5 on Friday or face the daunting task of heading back to Miller Park needing back-to-back victories against the Brewers to punch its World Series ticket.
But like it or not, this is how it's supposed to be. It's what the Cardinals know, because they would get lost on Easy Street.
"It seems like it's been this way for a while," infielder Ryan Theriot said. "It's never helpful. You'd rather it not be this way. It doesn't make it any easier."
You want challenging? How about overcoming the loss of Cy Young candidate Adam Wainwright to season-ending elbow surgery in spring training? How about watching your bullpen dump kerosene on seemingly every late-inning lead? How about losing Holliday to an emergency appendectomy? Pujols to a fractured wrist? Freese to a broken hand?
And how about Chris Carpenter spending chunks of the season pitching like anyone but Chris Carpenter?
By the time August 25 rolled around the Cardinals trailed Atlanta by 10½ games. The rest of the story is well-documented -- St. Louis became just the fourth team to overcome a 10-game deficit to win the wild card. And two of those teams -- the 2003 Florida Marlins and 2005 Houston Astros -- went on to the World Series.
So needing to win Game 5 here at home on Friday? With Jaime Garcia on the mound? The same Jaime Garcia whom the Brewers bruised and battered in Game 1? Not a big deal. Another day at the office for the Cardinals.
"When you've been in that situation, you just play hard," Theriot said. "Play as hard as you can. And hopefully it will turn out the way it has every other time."
"We play better with our backs against the wall," Nick Punto added. "And we're there again."
While the San Francisco Giants rode the slogan "Giants Baseball: Torture" all the way to the World Series last season, the Cardinals are like that guy at the bar who simply doesn't know when it's time to go home. They just lurk and lurk and lurk and the next thing you know they show up at the after-party.
For the smattering of St. Louis fans worrying about the bouncer eyeing them from across the bar, there are two likely irrelevant but entertaining historical stats that should serve as an antidote to the Haterade. Losing Wednesday night's game may actually have been a good thing. The one time St. Louis led an NLCS 3-1 (1996 vs. Atlanta), they lost the series in seven games. And all four times they've played in an NLCS tied 2-2, they've gone on to win and advance to the World Series. Another source of optimism: The 1982 World Series against, yes, the Brewers. That series was also tied 2-2 and St. Louis won Games 6 and 7 -- albeit at home -- to win the '82 title.
But those, of course, were different players at a different time. Come 7:05 on Friday night, it's little more than something to talk about. No, this challenge will come down to Pujols, Lance Berkman, Holliday and, on Friday, Garcia.
In Game 1, Garcia surrendered six hits, three walks and six runs in four innings. In Game 5, Garcia opposes Zack Greinke, who went 16-6 this year during the regular season and is 1-0 with an 8.18 ERA in the playoffs.
"You make a start where things don't go your way, you get a little anxious," Garcia said. "But it's part of the game. You've got to have that feeling. I'm going to basically work on what I need to work on and go out there and do my thing and not put too much pressure on myself. I'm excited. I'm prepared. I'm ready to go. And hopefully things go my way."
But even if they don't, even if the Brewers manage to scratch out another victory and force a true win-or-go-home for St. Louis come Sunday, they still won't panic. Oh sure, there won't be any LFMAO cranking on the postgame stereo and many of the Cardinals players will scatter after the game like cockroaches when the lights go on. But that doesn't mean they won't believe.
"You never want to go into the lion's den, but we know we can win in there if we have to," Berkman said.
Exactly. And no cab driver can get in the way of that.
Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.