The best regular-season team in the National League during this century was the 2004 St. Louis Cardinals. They went 105-57.
The 2015 Cardinals are just a tick off at that pace at 71-40. Are the contemporary Cards historically good?
The current Redbirds are succeeding in full throwback mode, all the way back to an era of complete pitching domination. Their 2.60 team ERA -- 0.63 better than the next-best staff (the Pirates) -- takes us back to a quieter baseball era.
It was a surprise Sunday, not only when the Cardinals lost, 5-4 to the Brewers, but when Milwaukee scored at all. The Cards had won the first two games of the series with shutouts and their pitchers compiled 38 consecutive scoreless innings overall. That streak was just short of the all-time franchise record of 42 straight scoreless innings, set in 1943. But in 1943, many able-bodied baseball players were otherwise occupied. These shutout innings may be harder to come by now.
These Cardinals are merely eighth in the NL in runs scored, making them a middle-of-the-road offense. That's not typically the Cardinal way, but with pitching this good, an adequate offense is all that is required to have the best record in baseball.
The 2004 team was a more balanced operation. St. Louis led the NL in runs scored and was second in team ERA, although that ERA (3.75) was a considerable distance from this year's mark. But even 11 years ago, it was a different game.
It also appeared to the eye that the 2004 Cardinals should have won, oh, maybe eight NL Gold Glove Awards. They emerged with three -- Jim Edmonds in center, Scott Rolen at third, Mike Matheny at catcher.
Matheny would say later that he could see the Cards' future at catcher with Yadier Molina already on the roster. But Matheny was a top-shelf defensive catcher and a superb and sincerely diligent handler of pitchers. And as the current manager, he provides a direct historical link between these two teams.
Edmonds specialized in the impossible catch and provided a reliable power source. Rolen, at the top of his game, was a wonder to behold. Not only was he a run producer, but even as a man the size of an NFL tight end, he was terrific in the field. Tony La Russa, then St. Louis' manager, would say that for him, a truly perfect game would be "27 ground balls to the third baseman."
Plus, there was Albert Pujols at first having a typically huge season. Edgar Renteria was still in the prime of a splendid career at short. At second, Tony Womack provided speed and had a fine offensive season. Reggie Sanders was still a highly productive player in right, and the bench was deep, versatile and useful.
Those Cardinals had a really solid rotation, with Matt Morris already an established performer, Chris Carpenter emerging into a front-line pitcher, Jason Marquis having perhaps the best all-around year of his career, Woody Williams working with typical dependability, and Jeff Suppan also doing some of his best work.
Jason Isringhausen had a big year as closer, and the bullpen, always a La Russa specialty, had depth and versatility. Two left-handers -- Steve Kline and Ray King were especially useful.
Yes, yes, yes, these same Cards were swept in the World Series by the Boston Red Sox. But the Red Sox, after overcoming a 3-0 deficit against the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, had been temporarily transformed into a force of nature. Their fans had suffered through a long World Series drought, a fact of life in New England, a factor of art in New England. It became clear that 2004 was the Red Sox's turn.
But that still takes nothing away from those 105 victories and the underlying abilities and performances that made those Redbirds so good.
The 2004 Cardinals had more star power than the current St. Louis club. But you could say that about the 2004 Cards in comparison to a lot of clubs.
The season is far from over, but to date, they stand on their own merit as another exceptional team in the long and proud history of St. Louis' franchise. They don't require comparisons to make the case for their achievements. But it is worth noticing how their record approaches that of one of the best Cardinals clubs.
The Cardinals are moving into the best sort of historical neighborhood, the one occupied by another Cards team.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.