New Year, Same Cardinals

ST. LOUIS -- It's a new year. It's a new October. And what happened last year isn't supposed to mean any more now than what happened in, say, 1967. But don't tell it to the champs.

Don't tell it to the St. Louis Cardinals. Don't tell them they're lucky they're still playing. Don't tell them the system saved them from extinction. And we definitely don't recommend telling them they're the No. 5 seed in a five-team National League field.

They didn't get that memo. And just to make sure that's a message that will never be delivered to this sender, they gathered in their clubhouse Saturday, on the day before Game 1 of their NL Division Series against the Washington Nationals, and reminded each other of exactly what they are and who they are:

The champs.

A fellow named Lance Berkman spoke. A guy named Chris Carpenter spoke. They didn't plan it. They didn't script it. But they had something important they needed to say to the men inside that clubhouse. So they said it. Loud and clear.

"I just feel like, a lot of times, these games are about attitude, about the way you carry yourself," Berkman said. "And I thought it was just important for us to remember that we ARE the defending World Series champions. We're the team to beat. All these other teams, they're trying to knock us off. But we're the champs. So take that mentality on the field with us."

It wasn't the Gettysburg Address. It wasn't supposed to be. It didn't take long. It didn't leave the room in tears. But Lance Berkman made his point. And Chris Carpenter made his, with a similar take on how champions act, how they do battle in games like these, how they defend their titles.

Their teammates took it all in. And unlike the speeches players hear in other towns, from other voices, you almost got the feeling the men in that Cardinals clubhouse were trying their best to memorize every word.

"When Carp and Lance speak, people listen," said their longtime utility man, Skip Schumaker. "When they speak, it's not just some crappy speech where somebody's trying to make you believe something that's not true. These guys know what they're talking about. They're so well-spoken. And they've been through just about everything possible. So when Carp and Lance speak, they're our true leaders in this clubhouse. And you pay attention."

What's interesting about that, of course, is that almost every player in that room has contributed more to this team's cause ON the field this season than those two. But in the eyes of their teammates, that hasn't diminished their stature one iota.

Berkman has battled knee issues since April and finished the season with just two home runs and 12 hits all year. He's gotten only 10 at-bats since July and isn't even on the postseason roster. But he still comes to work every day, trying to make a difference in whatever small way he can -- even if it's just with his smarts and his vocal cords.

Meanwhile, Carpenter is only a few months removed from surgery to address thoracic outlet syndrome. He made just three late-season starts, and although he pitched reasonably well, the Cardinals didn't win any of them. But it's a miracle he's pitching at all so soon after surgery. And he means so much to this group that the Cardinals included him in their postseason rotation over a guy who won 18 games (Lance Lynn).

But Carpenter is also part of what makes the Cardinals so dangerous, not just to the Nationals but to any team that might have to match up with them in October. They're more talented than their record might make them appear. And, as they reminded the Braves in the Infield Fly Rule Wild Card Classic, these guys still think they're going to win every postseason baseball game they play.

"We've been through the extreme highs and the extreme lows of a postseason, so I really don't think anything can get to us," Schumaker said. "I mean, we were down, 2-0, to a pitcher (Kris Medlen) who hadn't lost in 24 starts, and it felt like it was still 0-0 in our dugout. And that's a good feeling to have.

"You know, we could make a million excuses this year about why we shouldn't be in this spot, with all the injuries, with Lance's injury and Carp's injury, and last year it was (Adam) Wainwright's injury. No Albert Pujols. We could go on and on. But the core of guys is still here. And they know what it takes. I just don't feel like we ever panic. And that's because of what we went through last year."

So they found themselves in another elimination game in Atlanta? Big whoop. In the last 375 days, they've essentially played seven elimination games -- Games 6 and 7 of the World Series (down, 3-2), Games 4 and 5 of last year's NLDS (down 2-1), the final two games of the 2011 regular season (when one loss could have sent them home) and then that wild-card game. They've won all seven of those games, by the way.

It shouldn't shock anybody, then, that while the rest of the planet was focusing Friday on the interpretation of the Infield Fly Rule, the people who were really paying attention knew exactly why the Cardinals won that game:

While the Braves were self-destructing on offense and defense, the Cardinals did everything that great October baseball teams do. They made the Braves pay for every screw-up. Ground out excellent at-bats in important spots. Ran the bases aggressively and intelligently. And stayed in the moment, just the way they always have.

"The mental approach of this team," said GM John Mozeliak, "is, we think about today and only today. We never think about the future, because we never know if we'll even get to that future."

That was their mantra last year under Tony La Russa. It's their mantra this year under Mike Matheny. And one reason that vibe hasn't changed, despite the absence of a presence as powerful as La Russa's, Berkman said, is that Matheny was sharp enough to figure out early on that "this team really manages itself."

With so many strong, intelligent, veteran leaders setting a special tone, all the important messages get delivered by the men who can deliver them best. That would be men like Chris Carpenter and Lance Berkman who know exactly when it's time to open their mouths -- and know precisely what to speak about when they do.

"All this stuff doesn't really impact the outcome of the games," Berkman said. "But part of being able to compete well, I think, is being in the right mindset. So all I was trying to do was just get guys to focus on something positive, to focus, really, on who they are and calling on that confidence that we have. …

"I'm not saying we're going to win the World Series, because anything can happen. But I do know that this team is going to go out and compete well. And I think that's the hallmark of a champion. That's what good teams do."