In 2006 the Cardinals went 83-78 and then 11-5, and while it's true that a lot of their success that year had to do with players getting and staying healthy, in a lot of important ways they were the same Cardinals they were through most of that distinctly unpleasant regular season. Jason Isringhausen and Mark Mulder and Jason Marquis were gone, but elsewhere the difference was just players playing at the top of the level you could reasonably expect from them.
Those playoffs were like watching the Cardinals you imagine every February—the ones that all have defined, incredibly useful roles and are hovering on the verge of a breakout season. Yadier Molina went from having the worst season of his career to anticipating the player he became the next season; Jeff Weaver had a return to form while Anthony Reyes validated, for that one moment, his status as the team's top prospect. In the bullpen Tyler Johnson and Josh Kinney stood in as Adam Wainwright's lieutenants without issue.
A successful postseason run involves a few separate optimizations. The team gets to discard pieces that weren't working all season without issue—out Sidney Ponson, Jorge Sosa, Ricardo Rincon, out Ryan Franklin, Shortstop Ryan Theriot, Corey Patterson. It gets to play its best players constantly—out Jason Marquis and Gary Bennett, out Jake Westbrook and Gerald Laird.
All the postseason teams are entitled to those two moves, but the most successful postseason teams get to watch as their players make that Spring Training, Best Shape of His Life turn for a month of games. Jason Motte becomes a closer, Marc Rzepczynski vaporizes Prince Fielder, David Freese hits everything to the opposite field for extra bases and Albert Pujols reminds us what it means to be Albert Pujols, to be the best at every single thing he's asked to do during a baseball game.
What's frustrating about the postseason is that the teams that do the best are almost by definition playing over their heads. That can be attributed to the players being clutch, or the manager being a genius, or to nothing at all, which is where I'd imagine a lot of us are at, and it's hard to watch baseball when it's so unmoored from the things we know make baseball work.
When it's working out for your team, of course, it's easy enough to make an exception. This is Arthur Rhodes: Long may he be a crafty veteran who saves his best stuff for last, or whatever it is to which we'll be attributing all this.
Under the fold notes:
- I would like to take this opportunity to say that the C.J. Wilson-Lance Berkman feud is perhaps my favorite in World Series history. Lance Berkman says something ill-considered about a baseball team that wanted to sign him; Lance Berkman apologizes several times, directly and without any sports-interview weaseling; C.J. Wilson declares it a non-issue, to a chorus of disappointed journalist sighs. No comment yet from Nyjer Morgan. Perfect.
- Tony La Russa has gone to Fernando Salas as the first reliever out of the pen so consistently—and with such generally good results—that I'm beginning to believe in the effectiveness of the very first-set-up-guy I speculated that he invented. Tony is in my head, and I did it to myself, and that, sailor, is how you win at To Tell the Truth.
- If you add David Freese's playoff numbers to his 97 regular season games he's hitting .312 and slugging .488. That's 15 points of batting average and 47 points of slugging percentage. In general the national next-great-Cardinals-star narrative that's developing around him is a little ridiculous—the result mainly of people failing to see he'll be 29 next year—but he's had quite a season, and he's added 42 at-bats with a slugging percentage of .857 to the back end. I'm curious to see if La Russa, next season (if he's back), takes this as a sign and continues to take him out in the seventh inning every night.