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Cardinal Rule

Perfect pitching and clutch hitting lead St. Louis to 10th title.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published October 28, 2006


St. Louis4

Detroit2

ST. LOUIS - As often as they struggled through the season, as close as they came to missing the playoffs, as much skepticism as they faced at each stage, the Cardinals relied on one of manager Tony La Russa's simplest beliefs: It's not the best team that wins but the team that plays the best.

And on a cold Friday night, as Adam Wainwright threw the final strike, as catcher Yadier Molina leapt in the air, as La Russa raced onto the Busch Stadium infield and exchanged bear hugs with his red-clad team, there was no doubt the Cardinals were the best.

With eight stunning innings from Jeff Weaver, with huge hits from Series MVP David Eckstein, with more help from the gang-that-couldn't-throw-straight Tigers, the Cardinals scored a 4-2 victory in Game 5 to win the World Series.

"What a story," La Russa said. "This group of guys, I'll never forget. This is an accomplishment."

The Cardinals' 83 regular-season wins - 13th most in the majors this season - are the fewest ever for a Series champion, surpassing the 1987 Twins, who had 85.

But they won when they had to, avoiding what would have been a historic collapse, then eliminating the favored Padres, then the Mets and now the Tigers. And from the look of the celebration, that didn't make the championship - the Cardinals first since 1982 and their 10th overall - any less meaningful.

"No way," general manager Walt Jocketty said. "There were years when we won 100 and 105 games and we didn't get this. This is why the playoffs are such a crapshoot."'

And La Russa, the son of Ybor City and west Tampa, joined Sparky Anderson as the only managers to win championships in both the American and National Leagues.

"I have such a respect and affection for Sparky, I believe he's one of the greatest, not just managers, but baseball men, ambassadors for the game," La Russa said. "It's sucjh a great honor. He really should have this alone."

As much talk as there has been about the Tigers' lack of hitting and as many questions as have been asked about the way they set up their pitching, it is their defense that has hurt them the most.

They made two more errors Friday - including a Series record fifth by their pitchers - to give then eight for the five games, allowing eight unearned runs in the process. They were the first team since the 1979 Pirates to make errors in each of the first five games.

The Cardinals, the first team to clinch a Series at home since the 2002 Angels, got off to an early lead in the second.

Molina rapped the first of his three singles, mobbed around on a bunt and a ground out, and scored on another big hit by little Eckstein, the former Florida Gator, with third baseman Brandon Inge throwing wildly past first.

But the Tigers, stymied for the most part offensively, came around enough to take the lead - with some help. After rightfielder Chris Duncan - the pitching coach's son - botched the first of two fly balls, Sean Casey followed with a home run to put Detroit up 2-1. It was the first time Casey had hit homers in back-to-back games since August - of the 2004 season.

But - and stop us if you've heard this before - the Tigers threw the lead away.

With runners on first and second after a pair of singles, Tigers starter Justin Verlander fielded Jeff Weaver's bunt and - like Fernando Rodney on Thursday night - calmly, gently looked to third base and threw the ball wildly past I, allowing Molina to score.

Eckstein then came through again, hitting a grounder to short to knock in So Taguchi with the go-ahead run.

The Cardinals expanded the lead to 4-2 in the seventh when Eckstein started another rally by beating out an infield hit and resurgent Scott Rolen knocked him in with a two-out single.

After a brutally raw day of occasionally heavy rains and often biting winds, the game started on time and under relatively decent conditions - 47 degrees and no rain.

Weaver, discarded at midseason by the Angels, may have come up bigger than anyone, throwing eight sterling innings.

"This was a huge game and he was out biggest hero," La Russa said.

Lots of heart

He may not be one of the biggest players in the majors, but scrappy Cardinals shortstop David Eckstein plays with a lot of heart. Notebook, 5C