ST. LOUIS -- They shouldn't wear uniforms and caps. They should wear scrubs and masks. These Cardinals play with such fine-tuned precision, such professional mastery of the craft that they're the surgeons of baseball, cutting up opponents and making them pay for it. Game 1 of the National League Division Series was just another clean operation, another scalpel job for a 5-3 victory that keeps them undefeated for the postseason, right on the heels of sweeping the Padres in the Division Series.
They did it their way again, and their way means surgical precision with the fundamentals. "This is a team that thrives on doing the little things to win," Cardinals second baseman Mark Grudzielanek said. "When we do it out there and everything comes together, it looks good." It did Wednesday night, just like it did throughout the sweep of the Padres. The Astros can play that game, too, and they didn't really do much Wednesday night to hurt themselves, other than the occasional misplaced Andy Pettitte pitch. But we're not talking about a huge error or a lapse in fundamentals that has Houston looking at a one-game deficit in the series. It's just that the Cardinals are so well-equipped to do the big thing, the little thing, and pretty much everything in between, that they're hard to stop. The Cardinals got their big thing on a two-run homer from Reggie Sanders, their Mr. October, in the first inning to get them started, but after that it was all about the little things. The squeeze bunt with pitcher Chris Carpenter at the plate. The quick hands of Grudzielanek to start a rally-killing double play. The throw home to cut down a run by third baseman Abraham Nunez. Just another day at the office for these guys. Or the operating room, if you will. "The best feeling that you can have as an organization, whether you're a fan or front office manager or coaches, [is] when you think the club is going to play. We know we're going to play," La Russa said. "Whatever happens, happens. If you get beat, you get beat. But it's really clear that we're going to come out and we're going to play."
When he says "play," he means play at the highest level, which is the expectation around here, not the exception.You could call it Tonyball, because it's certainly the way La Russa implores his Cardinals to go about their business. It's not like he invented these things, and he doesn't claim to have invented them. This is the way to play good baseball. But from the first day of Spring Training, La Russa makes sure those elements are in place, fully ingrained in the brains of everybody wearing a Cardinals uniform. "From Day 1, he'll tell you: 'We're working from the ground up,'" said shortstop David Eckstein. "We're working on those things constantly. He expects the execution part of it out of you." It's not hope. It's not wish. It's not asking. It's expectation, pure and simple. And these Cardinals deliver. "He expects his players to do all those things," Grudzielanek said. "There's no, 'I can't do that.' There's no, 'I don't want to do it that way.' It's just the way things are done here." La Russa doesn't let that preparation go to waste, either. The suicide squeeze by Carpenter was the Cardinals' second of the postseason, and in the regular season they went 15-for-18 on squeezes -- you might not find another team that was that successful at that rate on regular old sacrifice bunts. One key element, of course, is having the right people in the right places to get these little things done. When you have a double-play combination like the Cardinals have this year in Grudzielanek and Eckstein, it helps. When you have pitchers like Carpenter who make very few mistakes, induce ground balls in bunches and can lay down the perfect squeeze, it helps. When you have everyone on the same page like the Cardinals do, it definitely helps. Sure, there were a few things in Wednesday night's game that weren't perfectly pristine. There was (gasp) an error, an aggressive one made by Eckstein in the ninth on a ball he probably should have just eaten, but very nearly turned into something spectacular. Hey, nobody's perfect. Not even surgeons. Ever hear of malpractice insurance? But nobody was making any claims against the quality of the Cardinals' operation Wednesday night. Nobody could -- it wouldn't hold up in court. It was just another successful procedure, and you know they'll be breaking out the scalpels again Thursday in Game 2.
John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.