There are expectations, and then there are expectations. And, when it comes right down to it, you never really know what to expect. All that matters is where you wind up, and the Cardinals and Padres are right where they wanted to be -- in the National League Division Series, with a chance to take their 2005 hopes all the way. When you're talking about the Cardinals, their brand of expectation lives in rarified air -- we're talking lofty. After reaching the World Series last year, they came into the season expecting to get there again, and expecting to win it this time instead of becoming part of baseball history as the team the Red Sox beat to end their 86 years of frustration.
When you're talking about the Padres, the brand of expectation is a little less focused squarely on the World Series, but this club in its second year in a new ballpark definitely expected to be playing October baseball there by this year. Now, how each team reached their expectations so far, well, that's a whole different story. Neither one could have predicted the exact road traveled to October. The Cardinals didn't script out an October without Scott Rolen, that's for certain. Their slugging third baseman figured he'd do more harm than good if he kept playing on a bum shoulder, so he sent the Cardinals on their way without him. The name Abraham Nunez doesn't have quite the same chilling effect on opponents, but you can't knock the job the guy's done. Still, it's a different club without Rolen. Granted, a lot has gone as planned for the Cardinals. They knew pitching would have to lead the day this year more than last, and they've followed through there with a top of the rotation that's hard to beat and a bullpen that has the best ERA in the National League. Add that to an offense that's still among the best in the game (even if it's not off the charts like it was a year ago) and a defense that remains among the best, and you're meeting some high expectations -- even if not precisely the way it was mapped out. As for the Padres, they certainly didn't expect to be at or around .500 the entire season. They hoped to build a few more wins off their 87-win season in 2004, and they had a team better suited to PETCO Park that could do it. Injuries and ineffectiveness from some key hitters conspired to create a spin cycle of ups and downs that wound up even. The roster they have now is a shell of the one they brought into the season, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. They've had bench players Mark Sweeney, Robert Fick and Damian Jackson step up when needed, and they pulled in the likes of starter Pedro Astacio and catcher Miguel Olivo from the outside for big contributions down the stretch. So 2005 wasn't what exactly either team thought it would be, even if the final chapter is playing out as planned. The destination is all that matters now.
Well, at least until we find out if the Cardinals keep reaching their expectations, or the Padres exceed theirs.That's exactly what the Padres would be doing if they won this series, because even if they hoped to advance in October they couldn't expect it like the Cardinals do, especially after the way the regular season went. Still, the Padres pose a real threat to the Cardinals. They took three of four at Busch Stadium this year, so they obviously can win on the road there. But that was May, when the Padres were having the best month in franchise history with 22 wins. Those wins were highlights of the Padres' season. They hardly register a blip on the Cardinals' rise toward the century mark in win. Still, a short series generally plays to the underdog, and that distinction definitely belongs to the Padres here. Beyond that, they're also equipped to come up with the upset with ace Jake Peavy giving the Padres a chance to win a game in St. Louis that could set the tone for the series. Of course, he'd have to get past Cy Young candidate Chris Carpenter -- not to mention Albert Pujols and Co. -- to do that. But that's all part of the fun of a five-game series. Anything can happen. In other words, expect the unexpected, but don't be surprised when the Cardinals' expectations of reaching the World Series continue to be met, either.
John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.