Long, strange trip for Cardinals

Long, strange trip for Cardinals

ST. LOUIS -- If you'd asked Cardinals players, coaches and fans back in May whether they thought their team had a chance at a World Series title, plenty of them would have said yes.

In August? Not so many. By the end of September, only the truest of true believers were still on the bandwagon.

Yet here the Redbirds are, celebrating the franchise's 10th World Series championship. A team that went 83-78 in the regular season, that sustained two eight-game losing streaks and another seven-game skid, went 11-5 in the playoffs to claim the biggest prize of all. The peaks and valleys were plentiful, but the season ended at the very summit.

"We might have limped a little," said infielder Aaron Miles, "but once we got into the playoffs, we started sprinting."

On May 27, St. Louis was 32-17, well ahead of pace for a third consecutive season of 100 or more wins. Sidney Ponson pitched the Cards to a win in San Diego that day, putting them a full five games clear of the division. Another cakewalk seemed to be in the offing.

Then things got interesting. On May 28, Mark Mulder endured the first of what would be a run of rough outings, which eventually turned out to be injury-related and culminated in a trip to the disabled list. Ponson, 4-0 with a 2.92 ERA following the Padres victory, didn't win another game in a Cardinals uniform, and his ERA ballooned to over 5.00 before he was designated for assignment.

By June 7, the Cardinals were down to 11 games over .500, and they were tied with the Reds. Yet the Redbirds quickly stretched the lead back to five games before their first true swoon. St. Louis was dismantled in a six-game, late-June Interleague road trip against the White Sox and Tigers, outscored by a combined 55-24 margin.

The streak reached eight before the bleeding was stanched. The ragged Interleague run planted the first serious seeds of doubts in Cardinal Nation as to whether this club could successfully represent the National League in the World Series.

"The way we played Interleague this year, we didn't do a good job," said World Series MVP David Eckstein. "We had something to prove that we could compete with the best over the American League."

But in this nothing-is-as-simple-as-it-seems season, the Cardinals followed their June swoon by finding a winning tonic in mid-July. They reached 16 games over even-money on July 26, and led the division by 5 1/2 games once again.

Things looked good. Briefly.

A four-game sweep by the Cubs at Wrigley Field triggered a second eight-game losing streak, and the Cardinals were officially a schizophrenic team. They played .500 ball for much of the rest of August before struggling badly in September. A team that once led the NL Central by seven games had to go to the last day of the season to secure the division title.

Closer Jason Isringhausen went down to injury in September, leaving major questions in the bullpen. Jim Edmonds and Eckstein battled injuries. The Cardinals looked like a battered team that would be lucky to win a couple of games in October.

But to manager Tony La Russa, the sight wasn't quite so sour. He saw other things. He saw Jeff Suppan and Jeff Weaver trending upward, offering two solid components to a playoff rotation. He held out hope that his hitters would get healthy.

Then he saw his club take the field in its playoff opener in San Diego. And nothing was the same after that. The Cardinals played with sharpness, purpose and passion. After a season of doubt, they played like champions in October.

"The atmosphere has just been outstanding," La Russa said. "The clubhouse, the dugout through the game. We've lost games and nothing changes. It's been really a pleasure to watch guys respond that way. They've really tried to compete as a team, and it's been fun. Win or lose. If you'd told me after San Diego, we got beat, it's been a hell of an experience to watch these guys."

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