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Cards ready to add to magical year
10/02/2004 7:41 PM ET
Some teams, you need a program to know all the players. With the 2004 Cardinals, you needed a record book to know all the achievements. It's already been a historic season for St. Louis.

In every facet of the game, they've reached milestone after milestone. Starting pitching, relief pitching, offense and defense have all been pluses as the Redbirds have been baseball's best team over the 162-game grinder of a regular season.

The 2004 Cards have already won more games than any St. Louis team since World War II. They have three MVP candidates, the league leader in saves and four 15-game winners. All from a team widely picked to finish in third place when the season started.

 NL Central Champions

Second-half highlights
First-half highlights
• The Cardinals' road to the playoffs: 56K | 350K
• The Cardinals clinch the NL Central title: 56K | 350K

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Talk of magic numbers surfaced in August. The race in the National League Central division was declared over in some quarters in late July, when St. Louis swept a pair of games at Wrigley Field to take a 10-game lead.

Now the magic number is 11. Three, four and four -- Division Series, NL Championship Series and World Series. For a city starved for a World Series, and a team that believes it should win, anything less than the pennant will be a disappointment.

"What did Seattle win (in 2001)? A hundred and fourteen or something? [The Mariners won 116 games during the regular season.] Look what happened to them," said Tony Womack, who played on the 2001 world champion Diamondbacks. "It's not what happens in the regular season."

Which is not to say that the regular season hasn't been special.

"I know I've definitely enjoyed it," said Jason Marquis, who played on 101-win teams in Atlanta the past two seasons. "I think my teammates have also. It's something that, we believed in ourselves going into Spring Training when a lot of people didn't believe. ... We accomplished something that a lot of people didn't think we would. That makes us feel real good.

"But that's not something we're gonna rest on and take to the offseason, because we know we've got a postseason that's very important to us."

Marquis is one-fifth of a rotation that, more than any other facet of the team, has outperformed external expectations. Manager Tony La Russa said from day one that the Cards would be "pretty good to real good." Catcher Mike Matheny insisted to anyone who would listen that he was handling a fantastic staff.

The five men themselves -- Chris Carpenter, Marquis, Matt Morris, Jeff Suppan and Woody Williams -- definitely believed. But outside the clubhouse, there was skepticism.

The offense, everyone knew about. The defense brought back four Gold Glovers, and has since added a fifth in Larry Walker. The bullpen was bolstered and deepened. The rotation, however, featured more uncertainty than any other part of the ballclub. Unless you asked the pitchers themselves.

"I thought it was a team that had a chance to win," Williams said. "I told y'all from the get-go that it would come down to our defense and our hitting, that our pitching was gonna be fine. Everybody thought it was the other way around."

Will this team go down like the 1986 Mets, as one of the great NL teams of recent memory? Or like the 1998 Braves and those 2001 Mariners, juggernauts that met an early demise?

There are worries in the Gateway City, headed by the absence of Carpenter for at least one round and quite possibly longer. The big right-hander, who emerged as the ace of the staff after missing nearly two years with shoulder troubles, has nerve irritation in his arm and hasn't thrown in nearly two weeks.

La Russa, pitching coach Dave Duncan and the starters subscribe to the theory that today's starter is always the No. 1 starter. And that can't hurt when the remaining four take the ball in the playoffs. But without Carpenter, the load on Marquis, Morris, Suppan and Williams gets heavier. Even if they choose to ignore it.

"I know what's on me every time I go out there," Williams said. "My teammates expect me to win. They expect that after seven innings, the score will be close. That's the only pressure I put on myself."

La Russa looks at it another way.

"I doubt that one club will go into the postseason 100 percent in terms of their pitchers and players," he said. "So we've just got to deal with it."

Third baseman Scott Rolen is playing again after missing two weeks with a calf strain, and leadoff man and second baseman Womack has been cleared to return from a nasty bruise on his left hand. Lefty reliever Steve Kline is back on the mound after a groin strain and despite a finger injury. The only critical Cardinal who is out is Carpenter.

Mind you, he's pretty critical, so it's a fair question, whether the team is up to the task. The starters say yes.

"I think we have five aces on this team," Marquis said. "Any time you give a pitcher the ball and you know you have the chance to win, I think you're an ace. It also gave all five of us confidence knowing that we weren't gonna get skipped. We got the ball every five days."

And what if it doesn't happen? What if someone else knocks this team off? What if the counts go to 18 years since a pennant and 23 since a World Series title?

Williams acknowledges that it would be a disappointment, but insists that it shouldn't take away from what this team has done.

"It would disheartening to us, but I think you guys would make it out to be more than it is," he said. "'These guys choked,' or whatever. But it's not about that. We were darn good for a long period of time. When you get to the playoffs, anything can happen.

"Do I like our chances? Yes I do. I like our chances a lot. But if it doesn't happen, it shouldn't be, 'Oh, these guys had this, they had that.' ... Once the season is over, everybody is equal. You've got the best teams playing for one goal."

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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