NEW YORK -- The team that almost tripped over the finish line is the last National League team still standing. Or, at least the Cardinals will be when they regain their breath from a breathtaking night. The team that didn't deserve to even be here is going beyond. The wise guys had said that the Astros had simply run out of time in the bottom of the 162nd of the National League Central race. Yeah, just like the Mets ran out of outs in the bottom of the last game of the National League Championship Series.
"There's a rule of thumb we all use: You can't claim to be a good club unless you have 90 wins," St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said in the wet aftermath of a dry-mouthed 3-1 win in Game 7 at Shea Stadium. "Well," La Russa added, "this was our 90th win. So I think we're a good club now." The Cardinals had entered the postseason with a record of 83-78, with the second fewest wins ever, bottomed only by the 82-win Mets of 1973. Now they are the first road team to lose Game 6 of a postseason series and rebound to take Game 7 since the 1975 Reds. So, cue the disco music. "Nobody expected us to get here, so this feels pretty good," closer Adam Wainwright said, after regaining consciousness. Check that. The 25-year-old right-hander probably is still out cold, after his ninth-inning survival that mirrored the Cardinals' near-death September experience. "I have no idea how I got out of there," Wainwright said. "I don't even remember it. I'm just glad I got them. My mind was racing. I just didn't want to let the team down. "I never get nervous, but I was pretty nervous. My legs were like jelly. I had to step off the mound to ask God for some strength. I needed it." Wainwright turned toward the middle of Shea Stadium's cozy visitors clubhouse, which already resembled the Fountain of Trevi. At 6-foot-7, he got a pretty good look at all the overjoyed carousing, as he kept getting peppered with questions about the season, the game, the upcoming week. "All I know," he finally said, "is that I'm going to the World Series. And that's all that matters." There is a great scene in the film, "That Thing You Do," Tom Hanks' ode to small miracles, in which The Wonders sit poised behind a curtain that is about to rise on their national TV debut.
The lead guitarist turns to the drummer and asks with wide eyes, "How did we get here?"The Cardinals also got here with small miracles. As the droning talk about Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen began to sound like so much yadi-yadi-yada, on cue, Yadi Molina hit a drive not even Endy Chavez could catch. But that was only Thursday's small moment. The big picture is similarly filled with daily heroes, and the bark of underdogs. The Cardinals shot out of the gate with the best April (17-8) in their illustrious history, which, ironically, they finished tied for second place. They took over the NL Central lead on May 12, and never gave it up. Then they coasted. Or, were almost toasted -- they went 66-70 the rest of the season, to virtually trip across the wire, stumbling into the postseason when Houston lost its game No. 162. They held it together through some deep lulls. They endured two eight-game losing streaks -- June 20-27 and July 27-Aug. 4 -- while never leaving first place, the first team to do that. And they were still holding it together through a siege of injury hits. The Cards did not have more casualties than most; they're a routine toll of a long season. But they had the wrong people go down, and at the wrong time. Among them, the central foursome of Pujols, Edmonds, Rolen and David Eckstein missed 130 games. A strained oblique muscle put Pujols on the disabled list for the first time in his career in June; the other three ailed simultaneously in September. They were further weighed down in the stretch by the loss of sore-hipped closer Jason Isringhausen. Wainwright was force-fed into that job, just as earlier pitching crises had been answered. Mark Mulder, the lone left-hander in the rotation, last won on June 15, then his shoulder gave out. No problem; Anthony Reyes came to the rescue, from Triple-A Memphis. Sidney Ponson wore out his welcome in early July. No problem; GM Walt Jocketty came to the rescue, gladly taking Jeff Weaver off the Angels' hands. Weaver, so retro-tough in the postseason, wasn't the first or last reclamation project embraced in St. Louis. Hancock, cut early in Spring Training by manager Jerry Narron as a warning to other Reds to stay in shape, became a valuable setup reliever. Three days after being released -- by the rival Astros, of all people -- Preston Wilson was in right field, going 2-for-5 with a home run in Wrigley Field. And so it went, a midseason transformation that has brought the Cardinals to this last stage, to National League champion, from early-season fireball and midseason meatball. Chris Duncan joined up in late May. Josh Kinney alit in the bullpen on July 3. Ronnie Belliard arrived on July 31 from Cleveland, Jocketty's lone trade deadline maneuver. Stirring this melting pot was La Russa, who lost the comfort zone of thoroughly knowing his roster and had to make some uncomfortable decisions. So it took a while to get the ingredients just right but, now that it most matters, the batch is sizzling. "I give a lot of credit to the guys who joined us," La Russa said. "They came in ready to become teammates, and the guys here welcomed them with open arms. "It's a difficult way to get close, but it happened very fast." The bottom of the ninth was also a flash. As they had in September, the Cardinals again were daring the fates to take them out. Just like then, they survived to the next peak. "Carlos Beltran was the last guy I wanted to see up there," Wainwright said. "But, you know what? The way this team has fought and come through all year ... I wouldn't have had that finish an other way." The Cardinals live on. And now they have the Eye of the Tiger.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.