Give the Cardinals some love

ST. LOUIS -- It used to be big news in America when the team that won the last World Series found itself on the verge of heading back to the next World Series.

Remember that?

Nowadays, of course, it doesn't work that way. Nowadays, every sports fan in our great land understands that sort of thing pales in comparison to, say, A-Rod's audition for "The Bachelor." Or the possibility of A-Rod getting traded to the Nippon Ham Fighters. Or, at the very least, A-Rod's OPS against former Mexican League right-handers.

But this just in: While you've been preoccupied with baseball's truly important storylines, a funny thing has happened since Alex Rodriguez's last hit:

Those St. Louis Cardinals, a whole team full of Mr. Octobers, are doing it again.

They pounded the San Francisco Giants, 8-3, Thursday in Game 4 of the National League Championship Series. And here's what that means:

They lead this series now, three games to one. So they're one win away from doing something special, something historic, something that doesn't deserve to be trampled by our national fixation with a $275-million man whose last extra-base hit was five weeks ago.

"That's every player's dream, to be in the World Series and winning the World Series. And now we're close," said Carlos Beltran late Thursday night. "We're one win away from being there."

And if they get there, you should know right now, here's the historic significance of that remarkable achievement:

• Only three franchises in the wild-card era have won the World Series and returned to play in the World Series the following year -- the 2008-09 Philadelphia Phillies, the 1998-2001 New York Yankees, and the 1995-96 Atlanta Braves. But these Cardinals are one win away.

• Only three National League teams in the divisional era have won one World Series and then gotten back the next year -- the 1975-76 editions of the Big Red Machine, the '95-96 Braves and the 2008-09 Phillies. But these Cardinals are one win away.

• And over the last half-century, just five NL teams have won a World Series and then made it back to the next one. That would be the 1965-66 Dodgers, the 1967-68 Cardinals and the three teams we just mentioned. But these Cardinals are one win away.

So why hasn't that registered yet on the American consciousness? You've got us. Maybe it's because they're just a lowly second wild-card team. Maybe it's because they haven't finished the job yet. Or maybe it's just because they aren't owned by, say, a Steinbrenner.

But whatever. Best we can tell, just about nobody, from sea to shining sea, has fathomed this yet -- including the men who are in right in the middle of it all.

"I'll be honest. I don't think the LAST World Series has hit me quite yet," laughed this team's third baseman, David Freese. "So if we're able to get back there, if we're fortunate enough to get back there, wow.

"Now obviously," Freese went on, "we've got to come out tomorrow and play our game. But regardless of what happens, I'm going to sit back this offseason and collect my thoughts and realize how special it is to be a part of this organization."

Over the last 10 Octobers, the Cardinals have now won 41 postseason games. That's one more than the Yankees, seven more than the Red Sox and almost as many as the next two winningest NL franchises combined (the Phillies and Giants, with 42 between them).

It's a run that started with Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen. Now it's still going strong, even though nearly EVERY face has changed. But three men remain who at least have been part of most of this -- Yadier Molina, Chris Carpenter and the man who started and won Thursday's game, Adam Wainwright.

"This is my third NLCS," Wainwright said after spinning seven exceptional innings of four-hit, one-run baseball. "It's Chris Carpenter's fourth with the Cardinals. He and Yadier have been through all of them. I've been here since 2005-2006. But we have a lot of winners around us. The guys we have here are always comfortable in the big moment, because they've played in a lot of big moments."

We've long believed that you can't achieve big things, in life or in sports, if you don't dream big dreams. And this team is living proof. While these men are careful not to talk too much about what they've done before they've actually done it, they are clearly motivated by the chance to do something special. And it shows.

"Absolutely," Freese admitted. "Getting to the postseason is special. To win each round is special. Getting a chance to put on a ring at the end of the season is special. Sure, that can drive you."

It's not something they can talk about right this minute, you understand. This is a time to play, not talk. But this team gets that, too.

"Once the postseason comes along, it's task at hand, tunnel vision," Freese said. "This game's too tough to look at it any other way. But during the season, sure, we'll joke around about it. We'll sit around and say, 'Wouldn't it be cool if ...?' "

Well, that what-if time, that wouldn't-it-be-cool time is almost here now, thanks to a game the Cardinals took charge of about 45 seconds after the National Anthem.

Their first three hitters of the game all reached base off a wobbly Tim Lincecum, and it was 1-0. The fourth hitter, Allen Craig, smoked a turbo-driven sacrifice fly, and it was 2-0.

Then came a brief period of suspense, when Hunter Pence awoke from his October hibernation to whomp a mammoth second-inning solo homer off Wainwright, narrowing the Cardinals' lead to 2-1. (It was Pence's first RBI of the postseason, incidentally, allowing him to join Ryan Howard in 2009, Nomar Garciaparra in 2003 and Tino Martinez in 1996 as the only 100-RBI men in history to go this deep into any postseason without driving in a single run.)

But the dramatic portion of the evening went gurgling down the drain soon thereafter, when the Cardinals ripped off three consecutive two-run innings, in the fifth, sixth, and seventh. Then Adam Wainwright and his suddenly untouchable bullpen did the rest.

Wainwright was coming off a painful 2 1/3-inning, six-run, three-homer meltdown in Game 5 of the Division Series. So he figured he owed his compadres this one. He got them six runs down in Washington, in a win-or-go-home game, and they came roaring back to give him this chance to pitch again. So he was not going to let them down. Not on this night.

"You know, it was all part of my plan in Washington," he deadpanned. "No, it was very satisfying. A little part of me wanted to re-prove it to myself that I could go out there and pitch great when they need me to. I knew I could."

Amazingly, this was the first postseason game Wainwright had ever won as a starting pitcher -- a stat so incomprehensible that even he said "I feel like I've got a lot more than that, for some reason." But it's true. He was an emergency closer in 2006, took a heart-breaking no-decision in his only start in 2009 (8 IP, 3 hits, 1 run) and had only no-decisions to show for his two previous starts this October.

And then there was last year. It hangs over every pitch he throws this year.

His team won a World Series. He savored every minute of it. But it was a bittersweet October nonetheless -- because he never threw a pitch, thanks to a February visit to his friendly neighborhood Tommy John surgeon.

"In the offseason," he recalled, whimsically, "I was just like, 'Can we please do that again next year?' "

Well, now they're on the verge of giving themselves that chance. And Adam Wainwright is one of many men who wear this uniform, who appreciate what that means.

"This year, toward the end of the regular season, we felt like we were being hunted," said Freese. "Last year, we were the hunters. So it's kind of different than last year. It's a different feeling. Now we're one win away (from another World Series). So if you just go out and play the game, good things can happen."

Oh, they know nothing is guaranteed. They know the Giants just won three in a row a week ago to ambush the Reds. So even though 12 of the 14 previous teams to take a 3-games-to-1 lead in an NLCS have gone on to win the series, "that means two of them didn't," Freese concluded, at his mathematical finest.

But what has separated this team from the pack is its understanding of what these games are all about -- that if you play as if every game, every inning, every pitch, every at-bat matters, special things can happen.

So now here these Cardinals are again, one win away from making history. Again. And don't underestimate what that means -- to all of them -- even if the rest of the country is too busy Googling A-Rod's bikini model to notice.

"You know, it's always nice to wake up and understand that if you win you're moving on," said Freese, "especially when the World Series is at your fingertips."