"When you get to this point in the season," said St. Louis right-hander Chris Carpenter, "it's about who gets four wins first. It doesn't matter how. It doesn't matter where. What matters is you get four wins before they get four wins."They embody a basic focus of what needs to happen. Simple as it sounds, it is why the Cardinals are, well, the Cards, who have won more World Series championships (11) than any team outside of the Bronx, and are still alive in their bid this fall to become the first NL team to win back-to-back Fall Classics since the 1975-76 Cincinnati Reds. "We've got a good group of veteran leaders," said left fielder Matt Holliday. "There's no excuses allowed. We expected to win games. We expect to be in the postseason. That's part of the deal with being a Cardinal. It's why this is a great place to play. That doesn't change." It's not always the same people, but it is always the same focus. Tony La Russa, who managed the Cardinals longer than anyone has, and led them to nine postseason appearances and two World Series championships in a 16-year stint, retired last fall. Albert Pujols, the club's most impactful homegrown player since Stan Musial, followed the riches of free agency to Anaheim during the winter. Carpenter was believed lost for the season during Spring Training because of thoracic outlet syndrome, which eventually forced surgery to alleviate nerve-related shoulder problems, only to return for the final two weeks of the regular season and pitch his way into the postseason rotation. That's a rotation sapped initially by the early-September loss of Jake Westbrook with a strained right oblique, and then during the NL Division Series by the loss of lefty Jamie Garcia with a rotator cuff injury that puts his status for next year in doubt. And Lance Berkman, their middle-of-the-lineup switch-hitting first baseman, found himself on the disabled list three times this season because of a balky knee that required surgery twice, limiting him to 81 at-bats. So what happens? Well, the Cards won 12 of their final 16 regular-season games, holding off the Los Angeles Dodgers for the second NL Wild Card. They rallied for a 6-3 win at Atlanta in the winner-take-all NL Wild Card playoff game. They came up with a four-run ninth inning for a 9-7 victory at Washington in the fifth and deciding game of the NLDS against a Nationals team that had the best regular-season record in baseball. And now the Cardinals find themselves taking on the San Francisco Giants in their bid for a chance to defend the World Series championship they won a year ago against Texas. "We learned last year, you play one game at a time, focusing on winning that game, not where it is or who it's against, especially this time of year," said Carpenter. "We've got [19 players from last year's World Series roster] still with the organization. They get it. They've been through it. "They come to compete every day and do the things that need to be done to win." Most of the time, the Cards do. Sometimes, they don't. Carpenter, who had provide an emotional jolt when he returned to make three starts in the regular season and then worked 5 2/3 innings of an 8-0 win at Washington in Game 3 of the NLDS, gave up five runs (two earned) in just four innings on Monday, equaling the most he's given up in a postseason career that has seen the Cardinals win 13 of his 17 starts. "It's not about excuses," said Carpenter, "it's about results." Every time, St. Louis is anxious for the next challenge. Results so far are that the Cards managed to split the first two games, on the road, which is no small accomplishment for a team that was 38-43 outside of Busch Stadium during the regular season, matching Detroit, the only other of the 10 teams that advanced to the postseason to have a losing road record in the regular season. And it's about welcoming a chance to take a break on Tuesday and then resume the NLCS with the next three games at home, where their 50-31 regular-season record matched the best of any NL team, just one win shy of the best-in-baseball home-field record of the Yankees.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.