A certain energysurrounds hot baseball teams. Players come to the park early. They linger afterthe game ends. Music thumps in the clubhouse. The players joke around, talkball, tip the clubbies big, compare fantasy football lineups, play cards. Theytake batting practice with gusto. They play hard for nine innings and play asif they expect something good to happen. How much any of this has to do withwinning is up for debate, but it's like St. Louis Cardinals manager andresident theologian Tony La Russa says, "You don't take anything forgranted. You don't mess with the Baseball Gods."
The Baseball Godshave been good to St. Louis this year. The Cardinals came into the season withan ace who had not won a game in two years, a closer who not long ago was amiddling starter, a starter who not long ago was a dominant closer, anoutfielder at second base, a pitcher in centerfield and one superstar—thegame's best player, really—who was coming off elbow surgery last October. Theyhave since added a discarded legend, an unwanted middle infielder and athree-time National League All-Star who suffered a power outage in the AmericanLeague. Picked to finish anywhere but first in the National League Central, theCardinals probably will be the first team in baseball to clinch a divisiontitle, perhaps as soon as next week.
The reason? ForLa Russa, it may be the Baseball Gods, but for those of us who prefer moresecular explanations, there is always starting pitching, timely hitting andAlbert Pujols. On Independence Day the Cardinals and the Brewers were tied forthe Central Division lead. On this day, the first Monday in September, as thetwo teams begin a three-game series in Milwaukee, St. Louis is 14 games aheadof the Brewers. These three days in September will serve as a microcosm for aseason's unforeseen success.
Dave Duncan likesto break down hitters alone. This is the part of the job that still exhilarateshim. The Cardinals just played the Brewers four days earlier, but he is eagerto see new video. "You never know when a hitter will make an adjustment orget into a bad habit," he says.
Duncan is theonly pitching coach in the big leagues who was not a pitcher himself. Beforethe 1980 season the Cleveland Indians balked at hiring him as a pitching coachbecause Duncan had been a big league catcher, a good one too. But then—and thiswas pretty standard for the Tribe back then—the team's brass realized that itcouldn't afford anyone else to coach the pitchers. So Duncan got the job.
He has been doingit for 30 years. He has coached five teams, four Hall of Famers, four Cy YoungAward winners, an MVP, a strikeout king, ten 20-game winners and a guy whothrew a perfect game. He has also coaxed and inspired a couple dozen men backfrom injury or a crisis of confidence or oblivion and helped them enjoy thebest pitching years of their lives, often by a considerable margin. For this hehas become known as something of a guru, a reputation, friends say, he hasmixed feelings about. He believes in what he does. But he has a Texan's allergyto nonsense.
"I don't wantanything to do with this story," he says at first, and it is only aftertalking with his pitchers that he relents. He is proud of this pitching staff,especially its ace righthander, Chris Carpenter. "The total package,"Duncan says.
They have beenthrough plenty. Carpenter came to St. Louis in 2003 with a torn shoulder labrumand a trail of disappointing seasons. He went 49--50 with a 4.83 ERA in sixinjury-cursed seasons in Toronto. He missed the entire 2003 season, but in '04he was healthy and his stuff was electric. "He has dominant pitches to bothsides of the plate," Duncan gushes—for a pitching coach, a pitcher who candominate both sides of the plate is like an actor who can do comedy andtragedy. It means he can get out lefties and righties.
But Carpenterbrought something more. He loves game-planning as much as Duncan does, and"he never gets careless," the pitching coach says. Carpenter won 15games in 2004, the Cy Young in '05 and threw eight shutout innings in the WorldSeries in '06.
Then, moreinjuries. Carpenter did not win a game in 2007 or '08. So '09 represents acomeback from a comeback. Duncan never doubted. "He's so mentallytough," Duncan says. Coming into this game, Carpenter has won 10 in a row,and he leads the NL in ERA.
The two meetbefore the game, compare notes, come up with their plan. It is a simple one,not dissimilar from those of most other pitching coaches: Throw strikes,preferably low and away; work the individual weaknesses of hitters; give them adifferent look every time up. The one wrinkle in the Duncan Way is hisinsistence on pitching to contact. By telling his pitchers not to be afraid toput the ball in play, Duncan is empowering them, convincing them, as one formerpitcher of his describes it, "that they have Cy Young stuff every time theygo out there." Says Carpenter, "He gives you so much confidence. Youknow that if you just follow the game plan, you will be successful."
The way Carpenterpitches to Prince Fielder is telling: The Brewers' slugger comes up threetimes, and Carpenter starts him off with a different pitch each time. In thefirst he throws Fielder a changeup; in the fourth he offers him a curveball onthe outside corner; in the seventh it's a 93-mph fastball up and away. Fielderis never comfortable. He grounds out and strikes out twice. The rest of theBrewers are bewildered too. Carpenter throws a one-hitter, as afternoon shadowsstretch across Miller Park. The Cardinals win 3--0.
"I just stuckto the game plan," Carpenter says afterward. "It was thatsimple."
St. Louis hasbecome Lourdes for baseball pitchers. It is true for nonpitchers too—infielderJulio Lugo seems to have found new life after being dispatched from Boston;outfielder Matt Holliday is hitting like crazy again after three uninspiringmonths in Oakland.
Mostly, though,it's pitchers. Look around. There's Carpenter, of course. There's rightystarter Joel Pi√±eiro, who over the last five years had won 35, lost 47 and hadan unsightly 5.34 ERA. Now he's one of the better pitchers in the league—a14-game winner with a league-leading two shutouts.
There's RyanFranklin, a mediocre starting pitcher for much of his 10-year career. He cameto St. Louis in 2007 hoping to start; instead he has become the league leaderin saves.
Kyle Lohse hadbeen traded three times before signing with St. Louis in 2008, when he won 15games. Lohse has struggled with injuries this season, but the Cardinals believehe will be an important factor come playoff time. ("If we're lucky enoughto make the playoffs," La Russa says, with a nod again toward the BaseballGods.)
Tonight'sstarter, John Smoltz, wants some of this healing magic. Smoltz already has hisHall of Fame reservation. He has been a top starter and a top closer, plus hehas one of the great postseason résumés in baseball history. He is also 42 andcoming off shoulder surgery and a disastrous turn in the AL with Boston. Itseems almost inevitable, then, that Smoltz would end up with St. Louis. He wasreleased by the Red Sox after eight mostly dreadful starts (2--5, 8.32 ERA). Hecame to St. Louis, where Duncan and the Cardinals staff immediately worked onhis delivery. For starters they moved the outside of his right foot so that itis flush against the rubber; in Boston his foot had been about an inch off therubber. The change allows him to push off at a better angle, which, he says,should give his pitches more velocity and break. They also told him that he hadbeen tipping his pitches in Boston. Whether this is true or not isn't thepoint: Smoltz believes it's true.
"Myconfidence that I can still pitch is higher than ever," he says. With twoouts in the first, Smoltz catches too much of the plate with a changeup, andFielder turns on it and yanks the ball into the rightfield seats for a two-runhomer. Smoltz kicks the mound—he had not wanted to give Fielder anything tohit. In the second Smoltz gives up three consecutive line-drive singles and arun.
And then ...that's it. Smoltz strikes out the next two batters. He strikes out two more inthe fourth, and two more in the fifth. His slider is sharper. His fastball isthe best it has been in more than a year. He freezes Ryan Braun with a 95-mphheater over the inside corner. He leaves after five mostly good innings; hisstrikeout-to-walk ratio since he joined the Cardinals is a ludicrous 28 to1.
"Did you seeSmoltz?" La Russa asks after the Cards come back to win on a two-runHolliday homer in the ninth. "He was dealing!" La Russa is smiling big.The Cardinals have won 30 of 39. Their cup runneth over.
Adam Wainwrightis an unusual pitching story for St. Louis. He has no haunted past. No muddledhistory. He just turned 28; he is 6'7"; he throws a mid-90s fastball and aswing-and-miss curve. When he was called up to the Cardinals in 2006, he was sooverpowering that La Russa and Duncan decided near season's end to make him theteam's closer. Wainwright pitched nine times in the postseason and did not giveup a run.
They moved him tothe rotation in 2007, and he was good that year, better in 2008, and he hasbeen about as good as Carpenter in 2009. For other teams this transition fromsuccessful big league reliever to successful starter can be tricky. The Yankeeshave had some trouble getting Joba Chamberlain to make the jump; Tampa Bay hashad similar difficulties this year with David Price. Wainwright says theevolution was natural for him. "I pitch every game like it's the seventhgame of the World Series," he says.
Wainwright has a1--0 lead before he even kicks into the dirt. In the fifth Albert Pujols hits atwo-run homer. In the seventh Pujols hits another home run, his 47th.Wainwright jogs through seven innings; only one Brewers player will reach thirdbase. He wins his major-league-leading 18th game 5--1. This is the 10thconsecutive series the Cardinals have won.
In the clubhousejarringly soft music plays—coffeehouse music—while Spanish and English jokescrisscross the clubhouse. Clubbies pack everything up, but there's no realhurry, for tomorrow's an off day. A few players sit on the couch and watch SanDiego's David Eckstein face San Francisco's Barry Zito on TV.
Wainwright issurrounded by reporters—a not unhappy place for him—and he tries to sum up thegreatness of Albert: "I don't know how anyone could ever be better than heis. Ever. No offense to Henry Aaron and all those guys. Sorry, Hank."
And Tony LaRussa? He just says that this team is special, these guys don't let thedistractions distract. When asked about whether Carpenter or Wainwright shouldwin the Cy, if Pujols is the runaway MVP, if this team has the stuff to win theWorld Series, he shakes his head and points toward the sky.
"The BaseballGods," La Russa says, "are always listening."
Now on SI.com
Joe Posnanski onthe other Cards weapon, that guy named Pujols at SI.com/bonus
"Don't take anything for granted," La Russasays. "Don't mess with the Baseball Gods."
Wainwright is an unusual story in St. Louis. He has nohaunted past. No muddled history.
Photograph by MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY
BEHIND THE CURTAIN Duncan (18) has worked his magic with (from left) Smoltz, Pi√±eiro, Carpenter, Wainwright and Franklin.
JOHN BIEVER (DUNCAN)
[See caption above]
MIKE MCGINNIS/CAL SPORT MEDIA
RETOOLED After missing two seasons, Carpenter is back throwing a 95-mph hammer as a Cy Young front-runner.
MIKE MCGINNIS/CAL SPORT MEDIA (SMOLTZ)
SOMETHING OLD, SOMETHING NEW Smoltz (top) still has strong command while Wainwright has become the total package.
JOHN BIEVER (WAINWRIGHT)
[See caption above]