A year ago, St. Louis started the playoffs as the definitive team, with a capital T. They featured a three-headed monster at the heart of the batting order and potent bats throughout the lineup. A deep rotation that racked up quality starts was forced to make do without its first-among-equals ace, Chris Carpenter, leading to a perception of four good, but not great, starting pitchers.
This time around, the "MV3s" in the middle of the lineup have been pared down to about one and three-quarters. Scott Rolen is absent, out for the year with a shoulder injury. Jim Edmonds has searched for his swing all year long, though he shows signs of being ready for another memorable October. Albert Pujols, well, as Edmonds says, "Albert is Albert." The slugger has terrorized pitchers around the league just like always, despite carrying a heavier burden than ever due to injuries throughout the lineup.
If the Cards are less complete on offense, though, the starting pitching has a much more formidable look. Carpenter is not only available, he's coming off one of the finest seasons by a Redbirds pitcher in recent memory. Unlike last season, there's no doubt as to who starts Game 1. Behind Carpenter is offseason acquisition Mark Mulder, undoubtedly one of the top 20 starting pitchers in the league and the Cards' clear No. 2.
Which team is, or was, more whole? That's hard to say. But if the front of the rotation is what wins in the playoffs, then this year's Cardinals team is more equipped than the one that made it to the World Series before being swept by the Red Sox.
"I think last year, our everyday club was scary to play against," said manager Tony La Russa. "It remains to be seen whether people will really be scared of our everyday club. People are going to like our rotation. They're going to look at our left-handed relief; it will have to stand up. Last year we had [Steve] Kline and [Ray] King. There will be enough questions that it will be a challenge. But I keep reading about what a powerhouse we are, so I like that. I think it's a healthy perception."
What the Cardinals need, badly, is for Carpenter and Pujols to get the kind of support that their "supporting casts" are capable of delivering. Mulder, Matt Morris, Jeff Suppan and Jason Marquis must deliver in the games not started by Carpenter. And Edmonds, Larry Walker and Reggie Sanders must make the offense more multi-dimensional.
Recent indications are that the chances of both are quite good. Morris, Suppan and Marquis all go into October pitching well. Edmonds is heading in the right direction, while Walker and Sanders appear to be finding their legs after second-half stints on the disabled list.
Pujols put up his typical brilliant season, even with less help. But one hitter can be contained a lot easier than three or four or five can. If an opposing staff wants to pitch around Pujols and simply put him on base, the rest of the offense needs to turn that into a bad decision.
"That's huge for everybody," said Sanders. "We didn't get this far with just one player. We got this far because of each night, somebody different coming through."
It's just that a very large number of those nights, "somebody" was Pujols.
The last of the "cookie-cutter" ballparks gets its last hurrah with the 2005 postseason. Busch Stadium has, over the years, come to look more like a ballpark than a multi-purpose sports facility, and that may be part of why it has survived longer than its contemporaries like Three Rivers, Riverfront and Veterans Stadiums.
Busch lacks the on-field curiosities that mark many of baseball's newest stadiums. The dimensions are symmetrical, and it doesn't particularly favor hitters or pitchers. The weather can be a challenge, however. If summer runs long, it can be uncomfortably hot and humid. If fall comes early, it can be chilly and raw. And in true Midwestern style, you can get heat one night and cold the next.
Say this for Busch, though -- while the dimensions may not be distinctive, the crowds will be. You won't see a more enthusiastic or supportive fan base anywhere in baseball, and they'll be loud. And of course, wearing red. The greatest home field advantage that the Cardinals have is not the park, but the people who will come out and fill it. They're not bloodthirsty like in some places, but they are exuberant, to say the least.
"Albert's Albert. He doesn't know any better. He just wants to go forward. He just does it, and he does it well."
It's an unmistakable parallel between Pujols and Carpenter -- they pay no attention to the burden placed on their shoulders. In Pujols' case, it was to carry the offense. In Carpenter's, it was a litany of major assignments: Opening Day, starting the All-Star Game, and now starting Game 1 against someone else's ace.
"It could be any of us, I truly believe that," said Carpenter. "Is it nice? Yeah. I want to take the ball in the biggest situation. I feel confident in that situation, but I think that any one of us can do that. That's what has gotten us where we're at this year and last year. We've got guys that go out and compete.
"My job isn't to take on Jake Peavy. My job is to take on the San Diego Padres. Our offense's job is to take on Peavy."
Having someone to match up against an ace like Peavy, however, is an unqualified bonus. The second round could bring the Braves' Tim Hudson in Game 1, or Houston's Roger Clemens. The World Series could bring Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling or Bartolo Colon. In none of those matchups would Carpenter be the lesser light.
"We have five guys on this team, five starters that are capable of winning at any time, any given day," said Marquis. "But given what Carp proved last year before getting hurt, and what he's done this year -- he's pretty much gone out 99 percent of his starts and dominated -- it definitely gives us an extra edge or an extra boost."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.