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Cardinals do it the hard way

Cardinals do it the hard way

NEW YORK -- Bill DeWitt, the St. Louis Cardinals chairman of the board and general partner, stood in the bedlam of his team's Shea Stadium clubhouse on Thursday night and surveyed the usual wild clinching scene.

Under DeWitt's watch, the Cardinals renewed the legacy of Auggie Busch and won another National League pennant.

"Well, chalk up pennant No. 17," DeWitt said succinctly when asked what the hard-fought, 3-1 win meant to one of baseball's most storied franchises. "That's pretty darned good. We're excited about that, I can tell you that."

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Make it two of the last three under DeWitt's ownership group, which purchased the franchise in 1996. Together with general manager Walt Jocketty and manager Tony La Russa, the Cards have been to the National League Division Series six times since then and five of the last seven years.

The 17 pennants are second only to the Yankees, who have won 39.

This one might have been the toughest for the Cardinals, who won only 83 games and didn't clinch the NL Central title until the final day of the season when the Astros lost. They fought through season-ending injuries to starter Mark Mulder and closer Jason Isringhausen.

They had to re-stock during the season by adding second baseman Ronnie Belliard and right-hander Jeff Weaver in a market that wasn't stocked with competitive players.

"It's getting harder and harder to make deals to improve your club," said Jocketty, who wasn't left unscathed and took a yellow-shirt drenching champagne bath. "But we picked up some pretty good players, who made major contributions."

The Cardinals also lost shortstop David Eckstein and acrobatic center fielder Jim Edmonds for long periods with injuries and had to rely on clutch performances from bench players like Aaron Miles and Scott Spiezio. Plus, they had losing streaks of eight, eight and seven and survived. It doesn't make this one any better than the rest, but it sure is sweet.

"This is just one that was unexpected," said La Russa, whose A's went to the World Series three times (winning once) and Cardinals have now gone twice, losing to the Red Sox in 2004. "There's a little formula I use: You can't claim to be a good club unless you've got 90 wins. This is our 90th win, so I think we're a good club now."

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By acclimation, this may have been the best jobs ever done by La Russa and Jocketty, who have been together since their Oakland days.

Jocketty, with a $90-million player payroll to play with, had to patch and re-patch the team on the fly all season. La Russa, who has managed for 22 years with the White Sox, A's and Cardinals, adeptly kept the fabric of the club together when it appeared to be ripping apart.

"We've been to the World Series twice with this club and to a number of playoffs, but this whole experience has probably been the most gratifying because it's been such a struggle," Jocketty said. "It's been so tough what with the injuries and the setbacks we've had."

The Cardinals won 105 games in 2004 and lost the World Series. They won 100 games last year and lost to the Astros in the NLCS. This year, their 83-78 record was the worst since 2003, when the Cardinals won 85 games and finished third in their division behind the Cubs and Houston.

They were counted out a number of times and even were underdogs against the Padres going into their NL Division Series. But they won that series in four games, holding the Padres to six runs. And they defeated the 97-win Mets, despite all odds, with series MVP Jeff Suppan allowing only one run in 15 innings over his two starts and Adam Wainwright emerging as a viable closer, saving two of the Cardinals' four victories.

And now they go into the World Series against the 95-win Tigers, beginning on Saturday night in Detroit, with the second-worst record of any Series team in Major League history, surpassed only by the 82-79, 1973 Mets, who lost to the A's that year in seven games.

It's the little things that La Russa does that helps his team win, Jocketty pointed out. Something simple like flip-flopping Belliard and Yadier Molina in the batting order on Thursday night paid huge dividends. Belliard, batting eighth instead of seventh, bunted home the Cards' first run. And Molina, batting seventh instead of eighth, was in perfect position to hit the series-winning, ninth-inning, two-run homer.

"Tony did a heck of a job this year," DeWitt said. "We had a couple of long losing streaks and, in the end, we looked like we might struggle to get in. But he kept the team up and we played hard and here we are, NL champions."

And here they are, in the World Series for the 17th time with a chance to win for the 10th time and end the longest World Series title drought in franchise history -- 24 years. They can't catch the Yankees, who've won 26, but no one wearing red will quibble if the Cards can engineer another small miracle.

The way this season has gone, they'll probably take it to the very end.

"That's the way it's been all year," Jocketty said. "It's been tough on the old GM, I can tell you that."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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