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10/01/09 2:00 AM EST

La Russa's postseason book a thick one

Cards manager relishes uniqueness of every series

CINCINNATI -- As Cardinals manager Tony La Russa prepares for his 14th postseason, he remembers the lessons he learned for his first. It's been 26 years since a 39-year-old La Russa helmed the White Sox in the American League Championship Series, but the buzz for the skipper is still the same.

And while he's learned a few tricks and guidelines in his subsequent trips, he said that at heart, it's still basically the same thing.

Cardinals at a glance
2009 record: 91-71
2008 record: 86-76
NL Central champs

McClellan: Hometown boy
Cards: Shaking off walk-off
Ludwick: Dream fulfilled
Hawksworth: On way up
Ryan: Playing it cool
Pujols: Ready for fun stuff
Wainwright: Proud, durable
Holliday: Kids' play
Pujols: Triple Crown?
La Russa: 14th postseason
Carpenter: Heart of staff
Pujols: Eschewing rest
Holliday: A perfect fit
Carpenter: Ready to go
La Russa: Getting proactive
Wainwright: Apt pupil
Pujols: His place in history?
Pujols: The evolution
Holliday: Offensive spark
La Russa: Controls fate
Pujols: MVP No. 3?
Wainwright: Mr. Consistent
La Russa: Winning cures all
Carpenter: A go Game 1
Holliday: Big impact
Wainwright: Cy in cards?

"Hopefully with experience you do some things better," he said. "But each situation is unique enough that you don't have one set of circumstances. [Clinching] earlier or later, healthier here or healthier there."

This year's Cardinals team has some parallels to several different ones in recent years. Like the 2006 team and to some extent the '04 team, they've stumbled a bit in the season's final week or two. Like the 2000-02 and '04 teams, they received an infusion of fresh blood at midseason. They may resemble the '02 team in another way, as that club entered the postseason with the third-best record among division winners, yet ranked as many peoples' favorite to win the pennant.

The one similarity to all of the past several Cardinals playoffs teams, though, is La Russa. Albert Pujols is going to October for the sixth time with the Cardinals, but it's the eighth for the manager. That high number is not by accident. It's also noteworthy that only once in the previous seven trips have the Cardinals been eliminated in the first round. They've lost some series, but they've rarely been exposed.

"The last thing that you want to do is take this for granted -- this thing that we're doing is so special right now," Pujols said. "And I don't think that's going to happen because of the leader we have here in Tony."

La Russa's primary message about October is simple, and he carries it from Day 1 of Spring Training. Play at the highest possible level, and put the most possible pressure on yourself, starting from Opening Day. If you do that, then you can't crank it any higher when the playoffs start. You'll be ready.

"You don't want to have to turn it back on," said infielder Mark DeRosa, one of those significant additions. "You just want to keep playing good baseball. We worked so hard to clinch the division, we can't just rest on our laurels now and relax and wait for Wednesday to come around and think we can turn it back on."

That's the kind of thing La Russa loves to hear. He takes this team into October liking what he's got, even if the offense has gone quiet lately. And if his team keeps slumping over the next few days, he may call on a message he used in 2006: look at the players around you. That year, he pointed to Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen, David Eckstein and Chris Carpenter among others. This year it might be Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, DeRosa, Pujols and Carpenter.

It's a team good enough to win -- with a manager who has won before, thanks in part to experiences that date back nearly 40 years.

"I had a semi-advantage in '83 because I was with the A's up until August of '71," La Russa said. "And I was in that school of learning with the guys who ended up winning in ['72, '73 and '74]. I heard those. When it was over, I asked them. ... So I had that background. And then in '83, I had guys like [Carlton] Fisk and [Greg Luzinski] and [Jerry] Koosman, who had all had successes. So I picked their brains. ... I was personally nervous as a cat. But I felt like with the staff [we had], we were given quality stuff."

Now he's the one passing along the lessons and working to get the best out of his team.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.