The St. Louis Cardinals—half-cold, half-efficient—move within 1 of the Wild Card

Dilip Vishwanat - Getty Images

The St. Louis Cardinals could be the villain in an action movie, but halfway through you'd hear about their rotten childhood.

The Los Angeles Dodgers would be a fun team to root for, if we didn't happen to be the bad guys. An MVP candidate who spent most of September imagining new ways to look helpless, a bunch of stars with tarnished reputations and star-sized personalities brought in on a new owner's willingness to gamble, all of them trying to win out for the chance to immediately win again. Vin Scully, too. They're not gritty, not even with Mark Ellis leading off, and they're not underdogs for any reasonable value of underdog, but they're the right team for Los Angeles, or at least for my midwestern, Last-Tycoon-loving idea of Los Angeles.

But we happen to be the bad guys. So we as fans will have to settle for the night the Cardinals had, which was an odd combination of underdog tics and (villainous) Cold Efficiency. The team John Mozeliak built—on behalf of which we spent most of the offseason game-planning—was staffed by background players who could be counted on to be average and expensive, short-term veterans. It was a team we could love and other people could hate, and I know this because at various times we've gotten the chance to hate Carlos Beltran or Lance Berkman or Rafael Furcal ourselves.

All that worked as planned—minus Chris Carpenter—for about a month. Then Lance Berkman fell apart, and Carlos Beltran stopped competing for the NL home run title, and Rafael Furcal skidded toward replacement level, and by July, at the latest, it was clear the burden of the Cardinals' offense had shifted from the pricey veterans to the guys we were counting on to supplement them—Yadier Molina, Allen Craig, David Freese, Jon Jay.

In the meantime the Cardinals have depended on season-saving performances from Lance Lynn and Matt Carpenter and Joe Kelly and Pete Kozma, whose projected offseason roles ranged from "David Freese's Caddy" to "Gets Released in July When The Cardinals Trade Outside The 40-Man For Roy Oswalt."

The Cardinals could be filled with Pete Kozmas, though, and they'd never quite be underdogs, at least not outside St. Louis. They've been too successful, and they come off as too self-consciously purist, and the presence of Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols and the Best Fans in Baseball tag has offered people who hate TLR's particular mix of earnestness, indignation, and vague paranoia with years' worth of disdain.

But these Cardinals—without La Russa, without Pujols, without, now, their veteran augmentations—can't really be the calculating menace of the National League, either. Their new manager's been portrayed for most of the year as a handsome young dolt, Woody Harrelson in Cheers, and the only La Russian grudge-holder left is Yadier Molina. And Pete Kozma has more total bases than Lance Berkman.

They could be the villains in an action movie, but it wouldn't be a Michael Bay movie—it would be some serious director's pretentious genre-tourism Film, with villains who turn out to be hardscrabble victims of society and heroes who are, after all, spoiled-rotten Hollywood types driven as much by their sense of self-entitlement as they are the fate of the world as we know it. (It would open big after weeks of noncommittally explosive commercials, then collapse in the second weekend once people realized there was an impenetrable single-take allegorical sequence about the children's crusades in the middle of all that robots-fighting footage they used in the trailer.)

So Tuesday we got, for the first time in a while, a glimpse of the ruthless-veteran Cardinals. Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday got on base six times, and they scored twice. But we also got Jaime Garcia tucking a home run behind the right-field foul pole and Daniel Descalso tripling in an insurance run.

This can be a hard team to enjoy, sometimes. They aren't quite good enough to steamroll everybody, like they might have been healthy, and let us wallow in their veteran experience and knowingness; they're a little too expensive, too stuffed with career WAR, to sell us the story about all these homegrown prospects coming up as teammates and succeeding outside Albert Pujols's shadow.

But I've enjoyed them on both terms, from week to week, and now that the season's almost over I'm sure it was all worthwhile. All that ambiguity doesn't make for an immediate crowd-pleaser, but a few months after it's over people will be careful to let their friends casually notice the 2012 St. Louis Cardinals somewhere in the middle of their Netflix queue.

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