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Starting with Carpenter, Cardinals have what it takes to win

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PHILADELPHIA -- There's a team headed for the National League Championship Series with a big-time ace and big-time starters behind him.

There's a team with All-Stars in the middle of the lineup.

And a team that, yes, is tough enough to win when things get difficult.

There's a team going home that thought it was all of those things.

It's an absolute shock to see the Phillies dumped out of the playoffs in the first round, a much bigger shock than seeing the Yankees lose, a shock almost equivalent to seeing the Red Sox collapse and miss the postseason.

NLDS: Cardinals at Phillies
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It should not be a shock to see the Cardinals win.

It should not be a shock to see Chris Carpenter outpitch Roy Halladay -- barely -- in a spectacular Game 5, a 1-0 game in which the only run scored not even five minutes after the game's first pitch. It should not be a shock to see a team full of big-time pros, led by maybe the game's biggest-time manager, go on to the NLCS to face the rival Brewers.

Don't look at the Cardinals' 90-72 regular-season record, the worst of any playoff team, with 12 wins fewer than the best-in-baseball Phillies.

Look at the talent the Cardinals have ... and start off with Carpenter, who won Friday night's battle with his good friend Halladay by throwing a complete-game three-hitter.

"How could you possibly be any better?" Cardinals outfielder Lance Berkman asked. "It looked as easy as pie, and that's a good lineup. He absolutely pitched great."

Cardinals manager Tony La Russa made sure Carpenter would have two starts in the series by pitching him on three days' rest in Game 2. Even though Carpenter allowed four runs in three innings in that first start (in a game the Cards would come back to win), it set him up on normal rest for the start against Halladay Friday night.

La Russa said he knew the Cardinals' chances were significantly better with Carpenter pitching twice. He knew he'd need a big performance in Game 5, because he expected the same from Halladay.

"Unfortunately," La Russa said, asked if he knew Halladay would pitch the way he did. "But so does [Cliff] Lee. So does [Cole] Hamels."

True, but so did Cardinals lefty Jaime Garcia, even as he lost Game 3. So did Edwin Jackson, who won Game 4.

From the third inning of Game 2 on, Cardinals pitchers worked 34 innings and allowed just six runs, three of them on the Ben Francisco pinch-hit home run that saved the Phillies in Game 3.

"I feel like that's the story of the series," said Berkman. "Offensively, nobody had a great series. You can't point to one guy. What you can say is our pitching staff did a great job.

"And that's what wins games in the postseason, is pitching."

In Philadelphia, they'll spend the winter wondering how the failures of the lineup allowed the Phillies to waste the talents of baseball's best rotation in years. They'll no doubt focus in on Ryan Howard, who went 2 for 19 in the series, was hitless in his last 14 at-bats, made the final out of the season and ended up writhing in pain from a possibly severe Achilles tendon injury.

They'll wonder whether it's the Phillies' fate to end up like the Braves of the 1990s, another pitching-driven team that won division titles year after year, but just once was able to finish it off by winning a World Series.

Phillies manager Charlie Manuel admitted Friday afternoon that a World Series win was the expectation when this season began, and he said afterwards that he felt "very empty" at the thought of falling three series wins shy of that goal.

"Right now, I've got some anger," Manuel said. "And I've got some 'I don't know.'"

Manuel has nurtured a culture of winning in Philadelphia, and the Phillies expect to be the team that wins close games like the ones they lost this week. The Phillies offense was up and down all season, but no matter how many (or how few) runs they scored, they always seemed to win.

So many times, they did what the Cardinals did this week.

The Cards were down 4-0 to Lee in Game 2. Incredibly, they came back to win.

"If we lose Game 2, we're out of it," La Russa said.

The Cards were down 2-0 after just five pitches of Game 4, but they got the big hits and made the big plays to win it, 5-3.

"We're tough," Albert Pujols said.

On this night, who could argue with him?

In this season, which began in February with the Adam Wainwright injury, continued with injuries to Pujols and to Matt Holliday, and then with the deficit that required the big September comeback, who could argue that the Cardinals were anything but tough -- and very, very good?

La Russa talked about character "off the charts." He talked about the number of times the Cardinals got "kicked in the gut." He talked about the feeling the Cardinals had when they were starting their September run.

"This club was not going to be denied taking its best shot," he said.

That was September, and that was also this first week of October.

That was supposed to be the Phillies, right?

Not this week. Not this year.

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