If destiny isn't on Cardinals' side, luck is
Number of breaks went St. Louis' way on club's inspiring run
ST. LOUIS -- Hours before Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, Tony La Russa begrudgingly addressed a question that had to do with next year and not the immediate task at hand. Then the sage, superstitious manager shook his head and gawked up at the clear, blue sky above Busch Stadium.
"Baseball gods, that is the last time I will talk about 2012," he said to nobody in particular. "Please, not today. Mess with me tomorrow."
Oh, but those baseball gods have been on La Russa's side for quite some time now.
Friday night -- a 7-1 win that saw the Cardinals take advantage of the Brewers' defensive yips and take a 3-2 series lead -- was just the latest in a six-week string full of examples.
They say you have to be good and lucky to get to October and thrive in it. This year, the Cards have gone from the team that couldn't catch a break to the team that has a knack for being at the right place at the right time. Yes, they got to this stage through talent, resurgence and a slew of inspiring play. But you don't make the playoffs after being 10 1/2 games back on Aug. 25 without at least a little good fortune.
The amount of things that have gone the Cardinals' way since then -- contributions from unheralded acquisitions, late-season health, late-game comebacks, grand slams hit by pitchers, maniacal squirrels, you name it -- makes you believe this is just their year.
On Friday, they took advantage of four Brewers errors and now find themselves one win away from the World Series.
"Call it luck, call it good fortune, call it a good bounce -- whatever you want," St. Louis right fielder Lance Berkman said. "There's so much in this game where you can do everything right and not produce a good result. ... You have to have a little good fortune. But I think the better you are as a team, the more you put yourself in a position where that would benefit."
That has certainly been the case for the 2011 Cardinals.
They were good enough to persevere when things weren't going their way -- when Adam Wainwright was ruled out for the year, when Chris Carpenter and Albert Pujols started slow, when Matt Holliday got hurt and when Ryan Franklin imploded.
And now they're good enough to take advantage when so much seems to be going right -- a critical element for teams hoping to combat the randomness of October.
Reflecting on that reminded Carpenter of the 2006 World Series team.
"We weren't the best team, but all of a sudden, we caught some hot guys hitting, some hot guys playing 'D' and we made a run; win the World Series when a couple of guys threw the ball away," Carpenter said of that squad. "You definitely have to get some breaks, and fortunately so far, they've gone our way."
Plenty of them did in the critical Game 5.
There was that two-out Jaime Garcia ground ball in the second inning, the one that somehow crept under the glove of Jerry Hairston Jr. -- mere seconds after he had turned in a fabulous play -- and gave the Cardinals a two-run lead.
"Jerry catches that ball 999 times out of a thousand, and it just got by him," Berkman said. "You got to have stuff like that happen."
Then there was the head-scratching error by Yuniesky Betancourt that extended the sixth inning, allowing Albert Pujols to knock in an RBI single. Later, an errant throw by Marco Estrada was a catalyst to a two-run eighth that put the game out of reach.
Octavio Dotel -- part of a scorching-hot bullpen that hurled 4 1/3 innings of shutout ball on Friday -- is a religious man; he'll praise God constantly in his postgame interviews and attribute all his success to the man above.
He believes there's someone out there, watching over this team.
"I think somebody's protecting us to be where we are," Dotel said. "Definitely, yes. I mean, it's been unbelievable where we're at now."
He paused, then smiled: "I think God is on our side."
Whether or not you buy that depends on your religious and superstitious beliefs. But allow me to present some of the things that have gone right for the team that has needed every last victory it has earned to this point:
The two fifth-inning errors that led to two runs in a 2-1 win on Aug. 30.
Jake Westbrook's grand slam the following day.
Garcia's RBI single in a two-run win over the Reds on Sept. 3.
The Pujols grounder that found a hole down the first-base line against Braves closer Craig Kimbrel on Sept. 9, tying a game the Cardinals went on to win in extras.
Nick Punto's hit-and-run double against the Pirates on Sept. 13, representing his second go-ahead hit in a four-day span.
The events of Sept. 16, when Adron Chambers' first big league hit resulted in a go-ahead single in the 11th inning against the Phillies.
Kyle Lohse outpitching Roy Halladay on Sept. 19, allowing St. Louis to take three of four from Philadelphia.
The regular season's final day, when the plummeting Braves allowed the Phillies to tie it in the ninth, then win it in extras to put the Cards in the playoffs.
Game 2 of the NL Division Series, a night when the Phils had a four-run lead with Cliff Lee on the mound -- and lost.
Game 4 of the NLDS, when the squirrel that would become a folk hero to Cardinals fans interrupted a Roy Oswalt pitch in the fifth inning at Busch Stadium.
Game 5 of that series, a night when Raul Ibanez (fourth inning) and Chase Utley (ninth) hit balls that were only a few feet away from leaving Citizens Bank Park in an eventual 1-0 Cards victory.
That blunder-filled night we just witnessed.
The Cardinals aren't ready to call themselves "The Team of Destiny," of course. They still have to win one more game against the Brewers to reach the World Series, and they'll need to get it in baseball's toughest venue.
"We know we're going to have to fight them," Berkman said, "and the breaks can turn awful quick."
But St. Louis' skipper sure seems to have a way of talking with those baseball gods lately.
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.