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Cards equipped to go all the way

Cards equipped to go all the way

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SAN DIEGO -- The Cardinals team that thoroughly enjoyed its first champagne celebration of the 2005 postseason Saturday night has some work to do to match the Cardinals team that enjoyed two October champagne celebrations in 2004.

But know this:

The 2005 version very well might be better suited to enjoy that all-important third October champagne celebration -- the one after the World Series, the one the Red Sox enjoyed following Game 4 in St. Louis last year.

Sure, that's saying a lot at this point, and it's not something that can be said lightly when Scott Rolen's out of the picture and quality opponents are still in it.

But it's worth saying, because there are some good reasons to believe it. The Cardinals certainly seem to believe.

One indication that the Cardinals look at this is only one step in a process was the pedestrian, downright subdued celebration on the PETCO Park field after the final out of their 7-4 victory over the Padres than clinched the National League Division Series.

Oh, it got plenty raucous when the champagne started flowing in the visitors' clubhouse, but on the field it could have been a game in May or August, judging by the way they went in single file to shake hands rather than jumping in a wild slam dance around the infield.

"Our guys, I think, feel there's still more they want to accomplish," Cardinals GM Walt Jocketty said.

There are three key areas that tell you they can accomplish even more than they did a year ago:

Starting pitching: There's no question that the Cardinals' rotation was the team's Achilles' heel a year ago and stands as one of its strengths this October.

"I think when you look at this club compared to last year, our starting pitching's the biggest difference," Jocketty said.

With Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder at the top, that's as quality a 1-2 punch as there is still alive in the postseason. At the very least, they're in the same conversation as the White Sox's Mark Buehrle-Jon Garland and the Astros' Roger Clemens-Andy Pettitte.

"It's a totally different club when you have a Chris Carpenter and a Mark Mulder in the starting rotation," closer Jason Isringhausen said.

Indeed, the very presence of Carpenter and Mulder -- obviously assuming Mulder's bruised left arm doesn't give him trouble down the road -- when neither was around last October is a huge advantage. On top of that, when the trio of Morris, Jason Marquis and Jeff Suppan is holding up the back of the rotation instead of being up front, that's an upgrade as well.

Leadoff hitter: Perhaps more than anyone imagined, David Eckstein has made this Cardinals lineup a different animal. He's a big upgrade over Tony Womack, who might have brought more speed but not the kind of hitting savvy Eckstein does at the top.

In the Division Series, Eckstein finished strong with a 3-for-4 game that included a two-run homer. Throw that in with his squeeze in Game 2, and it's obvious the Cardinals have a leadoff man who can make some good things happen -- and that certainly wasn't something that stood out about this club a year ago.

Middle infield: The double-play combination of Eckstein and second baseman Mark Grudzielanek has it over last year's combo, more because of Grudzielanek being that much of an upgrade over Womack there than Eckstein being any sort of upgrade defensively over Edgar Renteria. But Eckstein's a lot less of a downgrade from Renteria than one might think defensively, with that run-and-throw approach of his from short.

Granted, they're not without their potential pitfalls.

The bullpen, which finished with the lowest ERA in the National League during the regular season, lost one of its core players when Al Reyes went down with an elbow injury in the season finale. The strength of the rotation helps balance that out a bit, though.

The Rolen factor can't be ignored, either. Abraham Nunez has been a remarkable replacement for one of the best third basemen in the game, but everyone knows he's not a true replacement in the sense of filling Rolen's big shoes.

That said, this team definitely has what it takes, and we saw that in the Division Series. It played exceptional baseball -- not flawless, but with brilliant execution in all phases of the game in each of the three games.

"We've got a great club," Carpenter said. "We've got to continue to play the way we've been playing in this series to continue to move on."

But as Champagne Celebration Part I carried on through the night Saturday, the Cardinals enjoyed every ounce of it, most of those ounces being sprayed all over the plastic-covered walls of the visiting clubhouse at PETCO Park.

"It's all about popping the champagne," Game 3 winner Matt Morris said. "This was our second time doing it. Hopefully, there are two to go."

They're certainly equipped to make it two down and two to go.

John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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