The 2011 version qualifies on all fronts. From losing ace Adam Wainwright for the entire season, to Albert Pujols' injury, to overcoming a huge deficit to gain the National League Wild Card berth, to beating the heavily favored Phillies in the NL Division Series, the season might have seemed like one big uphill climb for this club.
But here are the Cardinals in the 2011 NL Championship Series against the Milwaukee Brewers, starting Sunday at Miller Park. The Brewers will have the home-field advantage. In Game 1, Milwaukee will start Zack Greinke, who was 11-0 at Miller Park this season.
But anybody who dismisses the Cards out of hand at any juncture, especially this one, has simply not been paying attention.
The Cardinals have qualified for the postseason eight times in the past 12 years. That's a fast start for any millennium. Their best run was 2004-06. They won 205 regular-season games over 2004-05. The 2004 team had the best regular-season record of any NL club in this century, at 105-57.
The 2006 club went just 83-78, but that turned out to be no problem since it won the World Series.
Some of the NL Central competition has picked up since then. True, the Astros fell off the pace and the Pirates haven't had a winning season since 1992. But the Cubs spent more money and that worked, for a while. The Reds had a breakthrough season to win the division in 2010, although the success didn't carry over to this season.
Now, more to the point, Milwaukee has won its first division title in 29 years. The backbone of the Brewers' success has been their farm system. They used it to develop top-shelf talent in the first instance and then to trade prospects for quality pitching to finish the process.
The Cards and the Brewers exchanged some bitterness while going 9-9 this season. Maybe familiarity breeds contempt. La Russa has obvious and widespread respect as a manager, but accusing Milwaukee of cheating with the Miller Park lighting was a move that inescapably caused resentment. On the other hand, some teams don't like the Brewers' antics, like the "beast mode" display after hits. There is a belief in some quarters that this sort of thing constitutes showing up the opposition.
But the Brewers ultimately respect the Cardinals, because the Cards have earned that respect. When left fielder Ryan Braun was asked Saturday if he was surprised at St. Louis' success, he responded:
"I knew all year that they had a good team. They've got three of the best eight or 10 hitters in the league. Quality starting pitching. Their bullpen came together late in the season. It doesn't surprise me at all."
"They're a good team," Brewers manager Ron Roenicke said Saturday. "Very good offense. They've had some pitching lately, starting pitching.
"And we're going to have a battle. They're certainly going to be ready for it. They're hot. Last month of the season, incredible month they had and carried that into the playoffs. We're going to have our hands full."
"I think it's the best lineup in the National League," Greinke said. "It's just really deep. There's really no easy outs in the lineup.
"And not only that, they have a couple of guys on the bench that they could plug in that are just as good as the guys in there. I think it's the deepest lineup in the National League and the best."
The Cardinals have already demonstrated that they can compete under the most adverse circumstances. They were 8 1/2 games behind in the NL Wild Card race at the end of August. They were written off early and often. But as usual, that sort of thing didn't matter as long as they believed in themselves.
Since 2001, the Cards had the player whose production and staying power have formed a matchless combination. With his potential free agency looming, it was speculated that this would be a difficult season for Pujols. But there he was again down the stretch being Albert Pujols, setting St. Louis apart from the competition.
"He handled it perfectly in Spring Training," La Russa said Saturday. "We talked about it the first day in Spring Training, and he said no more, didn't want to be a distraction.
"He got off to a start this year, it was tough for whatever reasons, but ended up having a banner year. He's just immune. He's so strong between the ears, he knows exactly what he's responsible for, who he's responsible to and he will not back off that."
That is the typical Cardinals story. No backing off on any issue, in any season, in any direction. The fact that this team is one step away from the World Series should be anything but surprising.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.