8:28 PM CDT, May 7, 2013
Almost 10 years. That's how long it has been since the Cubs beat the Cardinals in a series that mattered, not that St. Louis fans would remember it.
When Dusty Baker's 2003 team took four out of five from the Cardinals in a four-day September war that included one 15-inning victory and two one-run wins, Wrigley Field was the center of the baseball universe. Every game, every inning, was electric. But a Chicagoan would get laughed at if he started talking about that series some night at Shannon's or another St. Louis bar.
The Cardinals have worked so much magic since then that it must run together at times — the 2006 team that went 83-79 during the regular season and beat the Tigers in the World Series; the 2011 team that got down to its last strike twice in the World Series and came back to beat the Rangers; and the team that recovered from a 6-0, fourth-inning deficit to knock the Nationals out of the playoffs last October.
It's only May, but the Cardinals already are doing it again. They've built the National League's best record while hitting .235 when it matters the least and .328 when it really counts, with runners in scoring position.
"I don't think there's anything that's magical about what we do,'' general manager John Mozeliak said over the phone. "We just have a deep lineup. When you have guys that can really hit from one to eight, you always have that chance of scoring runs. To do the kind of things we've done is really a reflection of how good our hitters are.''
Is it? Or is it that classic logo, with the bird sitting on the bat?
Think about it. The bird's not very big, but he doesn't look worried, does he? He might as well be a hawk or an eagle, surveying the landscape without a care.
"There have been down (times) for this organization,'' said manager Mike Matheny, who succeeded Tony La Russa last season and got his team to the NL Championship Series. He's right, of course, but it's hard to think about those times when the big moments start piling up this high (11 World Series championships, 18 NL pennants).
How do they do it? How do they win so regularly, so often seemingly overcoming the game's relentless math, while facing financial limitations that meant they would get outbid for Albert Pujols?
"It's about players,'' said Carlos Beltran, the seven-time All-Star outfielder who was signed after Pujols jumped to the Angels. "It's about being able to get the players — the veterans, the younger guys. This organization does a great job in scouting people, developing minor league players.''
David Freese, who broke the Rangers' hearts in 2011, is homegrown. Ditto catcher Yadier Molina, cleanup hitter Allen Craig, leadoff man Matt Carpenter, center fielder Jon Jay, shortstop Pete Kozma and starting pitchers Lance Lynn, Jaime Garcia and Shelby Miller.
Before Tuesday's game, both Beltran and Matheny referred to the Cardinals taking player development and scouting "seriously.'' Every organization talks about creating a pipeline to the big leagues, but St. Louis has sustained Branch Rickey's legacy with the influence of instructors such as the late George Kissell, who spent 69 years in the organization before his death in 2008.
Mozeliak is from the new school of baseball GMs. He knows how to crunch numbers, which is why he refers to the "randomness'' of success in given situations, such as Games 6 and 7 against the Rangers and Game 5 against the Nationals. But he points out the Cardinals consistently win in the minors too, citing the three consecutive championships won by teams outfield prospect Oscar Taveras has played on.
"Playing big games, facing great expectations, becomes second nature to (Cardinals players),'' he said.
Beltran knows about life on the other side of baseball. His Royals team won 64 games when he was a rookie in 1999, and it never got much better for him in Kansas City, unless you count half-seasons. He points to a huge benefit of playing for the Cardinals.
"There is no one here who ever feels like he has to do it or else,'' Beltran said. "I never feel like I have to get a hit because if I don't, we are not going to win. You are never the only chance in this lineup. If I don't do it, Matt (Holliday) can do it, Craig, Yadi … everybody, really. When you're in a position like this, it's a lot easier to have success.''
Like the bird on the bat, the guys in the St. Louis clubhouse carry themselves with confidence. They set the standard the Cubs are chasing, and there's a reason the guys in Vegas bet on streaks.
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