Cardinals shake struggles, enter NLCS with confidence


Tuesday, October 10th 2006, 5:26 am
By: News On 6


ST. LOUIS (AP) The closing days of the regular season, when the St. Louis Cardinals staggered to the NL Central championship, seem so distant now.

No doubt they'll again be lightly regarded in the NLCS against the New York Mets, the class of the league all year. But after soundly dispatching the San Diego Padres in the first round, the Cardinals are a lot more confident than a team that flirted with .500 has a right to be.

``We're going to be the underdog all the way, hopefully, to the World Series,'' Albert Pujols said. ``I don't care what happened during the season, this is the playoffs. If you win the World Series, nobody cares.''

This Cardinals team has a lot more warts than the 100 win teams of the previous two seasons. Mark Mulder and Jason Isringhausen are long gone with injuries, and Jim Edmonds and David Eckstein missed considerable time in the 2nd half.

They beat the Padres in Game 4 on Sunday night without All-Star 3rd baseman Scott Rolen, out because of fatigue in his surgically repaired left shoulder. Rolen, however, is expected to return to the lineup for Game 1 on Wednesday night.

One more reason not to like this team in the second round: ace pitcher Chris Carpenter won't be available until Game 3 on Saturday after working into the 8th of the clincher against San Diego. Reclamation project Jeff Weaver is the likely starter for the opener.

Weaver, 8-14 overall with a 5.76 ERA and cast aside by the Angels in July, threw 5 shutout innings in Game 2 at San Diego.

Then again, their first round playoff series likely was their best week of baseball since at least the All-Star break. The Padres scored only 6 runs, with Carpenter beating them twice.

``You forget about what happened in the regular season and start anew,'' Weaver said. ``That's what we're trying to do. The Mets, they're a powerhouse and they've got all the momentum, but we're going to try to go in and make our mark, too.''

There have been other pleasant surprises. Late season trade pickup Ronnie Belliard has dazzled at 2nd base, along with providing punch at the bottom end of the order. A reconstructed bullpen featuring three rookies and with 24 year old Adam Wainwright serving as stand in closer threw 13 1-3 scoreless innings in the first round.

At times in September, manager Tony La Russa didn't seem to trust the youngsters. In one game he left a struggling Carpenter in long enough to throw 115 pitches and squander a 3 run cushion.

Not anymore. He took out Carpenter after 6 1-3 innings in Game 1 and removed Weaver after throwing only 79 pitches in Game 2, turning the final 4 innings over to the kids.

The bullpen helped hold the Padres to an anemic 2-32 with runners in scoring position. San Diego left 2 runners on in the 8th and 9th of Game 4.

``They all got their feet wet during the season,'' La Russa said. ``Each of those guys, they've been pitching for their life since spring training trying to get here.

``So, you kind of get used to the pressure.''

Belliard was 6-13 in the series and his 2 run single tied Game 4 in the bottom of the 1st after Carpenter had labored through 35 pitches in the top half.

``He had a phenomenal series,'' Carpenter said. ``Having him there, making some of the plays he's made and coming up with some of the hits he came up with, that's the guy we need.''

Pujols put the pressure on his teammates before Game 4 when he declared a luggage ban at Busch Stadium. Game 5 would have been in San Diego on Monday night.

``I told the guys, 'Hey, believe, don't pack,''' Pujols said. ``I don't want to see any suitcases because we're going to win this game.

``It's no disrespecting the Padres, but that's the attitude that it takes.''

Instead, the Cardinals traveled to New York on Monday night to prepare for the Mets, who won the season series 4-2.

``This is great, this is something else,'' said Preston Wilson, in the playoffs for the first time in his career. ``It's amazing to be a part of a team like this.

``Look at everybody enjoying this.''