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And so it's the St. Louis Cardinals vs. the Texas Rangers in the 2011 World Series. Just like we all drew it up months ago, right?
The Rangers might have been a team on a mission this season after falling to the Giants in their first Fall Classic a year ago, but that didn't alter the national narrative from often unfairly focusing on the Red Sox and Yankees, as tends to be the case.
And the Cardinals? Well, suffice to say it was difficult to forecast them reaching the Fall Classic when they entered September with an 8 1/2-game deficit in the National League Wild Card race.
Hey, whether you saw this coming or not, the Cards and Rangers will meet on the game's greatest and grandest stage Wednesday night at Busch Stadium, when Game 1 of the 107th World Series gets under way on FOX. And it will be a monumental meeting of momentum, for these are two clubs that got -- and stayed -- hot at precisely the right point in the calendar, riding those good vibes all the way to the Promised Land.
The Rangers staved off a pesky Angels team to win the AL West for the second consecutive year, then dispatched of the upstart Rays in the AL Division Series and took down the Tigers in a tense and tightly played AL Championship Series.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, weren't able to overtake the Brewers in the NL Central, but they outclassed them when it mattered most in the NLCS, and only after overtaking the Braves for the NL Wild Card on the season's final day and eliminating a Phillies club that was considered "World Series or bust" because of its vaunted rotation.
Not a bad month's work on either side.
The work, however, is far from complete.
"We wanted to win last year," Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton said. "We expect to win this year."
Maybe you'd think the Cards are in more of a "happy to be here" mode, given their spot in the standings just a short time ago. But this is a proud organization with 10 World Series titles to its credit, most recently in 2006, and one looking to make the most of Albert Pujols' contract year. Their run wouldn't have been possible without a special clubhouse blend, and their intent is to capitalize on it.
"The feeling in this clubhouse is winning," said staff ace Chris Carpenter, who will take the hill in Game 1 on Wednesday. "We've been playing hard all year long. There were some ups and downs here and there, but the last two or so months, we started to put it together and played hard."
The Cards and Rangers have never faced each other in the postseason, and, more to the point, they haven't faced each other in Interleague Play since 2004. So matters of history, rivalry, etc., are simply not at play or relevant here.
And if the first two rounds of this postseason are any indication, don't get too caught up in the pitching probables, either.
Before a single game was played in 2011, both of these teams lost their aces from the season prior, as Cliff Lee fled Texas in free agency and Adam Wainwright suffered a season-ending elbow injury on one of the first days of Spring Training camp. And though it took rotation depth to survive the grind of the 162-game schedule and reach October, the starters are not the primary reason these two teams have advanced.
Be it because of quick hooks or early struggles, the Cardinals have notched just three quality starts (at least six innings pitched and three earned runs or fewer allowed) in 11 games, while the Rangers had just one in 10.
Surely, starting pitching was the compelling catalyst to the Giants' World Series run a year ago, and this past season was the second straight in which runs scored were at a premium, with the lowest per-game average since 1992. Yet these World Series clubs are here in part because they each have a lineup capable of exploding on the opposition, thanks to big bats like Hamilton, Pujols, Lance Berkman, Adrian Beltre, Matt Holliday and Michael Young, as well as the red-hot Nelson Cruz and David Freese, both fresh off LCS MVP honors.
But just as important, both clubs have the kind of bullpen depth it takes to survive on those days when the starting arm simply doesn't have it.
To that point, Rangers starters C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison combined for a 6.59 ERA in the ALCS win over the Tigers. Alexi Ogando, who shifted from the rotation at season's end, provided a brilliant bridge to setup men Mike Adams and Neftali Feliz.
"If you would have said at the beginning of [the ALCS] that our starting pitching wasn't going to do well," said Rangers outfielder David Murphy, "I'm sure it would've made some guys nervous around here. But our bullpen came up so big, that all we needed to do was get our starter through four or five innings."
The Redbirds know the feeling. Manager Tony La Russa has had an eight-man bullpen at his disposal and has not been reluctant to dip into it. It was a magnificent complete-game shutout from Carpenter in Game 5 against the Phillies that got the Cardinals to the NLCS, but such an outing was the exception, not the rule, in St. Louis' stunning run to the Fall Classic.
Case in point: Not one Cardinals pitcher notched so much as a single out in the sixth inning of any game in the NLCS.
"You don't want to end the game thinking that you had weapons that you didn't use," La Russa said, explaining his quick hooks in the series. "You just don't have that kind of patience that you can have [in the regular season]."
It took patience, endurance and, yes, quite a bit of good fortune for the Cardinals to reach October. They looked dead in the water in the dog days of August. But as the Braves caved, the Cards surged, and now they have become the 10th Wild Card winner to reach the World Series.
"When this club gets together years from now," La Russa said, "they will go, 'Hey, remember what we did?'"
Ron Washington's Rangers got together after coming up short in last year's World Series, and they made a promise to each other to commit themselves to getting back to this spot. Now, they're here, and they're hungrier than ever.
"Behold, here we are with another opportunity," Washington said. "They deserve a ton of credit. They got so much character in that clubhouse, so much drive. And as I said, we are a team, and that's the way they handle their business -- as a team."
You don't get this far without a team effort, and both of these teams have come a long way because of their depth, durability and determination. The Rangers have a sense of unfinished business, while the Cardinals hope to complete an unexpected surge.
They meet in the World Series. May the best -- and hottest -- team win.