CBSSports.com Senior Baseball Columnist

Cardinals' run to Fall Classic couldn't be more unlikely

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ST. LOUIS -- Jackets. Ties. And, nearly, tongue-tied.

Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak looked out at the crowd of some 200 businessmen. It was late August. St. Louis had just been swept -- slaughtered, really -- at home by the Los Angeles Divorce Court Dodgers. And here Mozeliak and manager Tony La Russa were, at the annual Knights of the Cauliflower Ear dinner in downtown St. Louis, about to tell this group of civic-minded sports enthusiasts ... what, exactly?

That the Cardinals had as much chance of playing this October as the Stan Musial statue outside of Busch Stadium had of playing the harmonica?

That a bullpen that blew 26 save opportunities -- second most in the majors -- was about to lead the way to salvation?

That the five players he had just acquired a month earlier -- pitchers Edwin Jackson, Octavio Dotel, Mark Rzepcynski and Arthur Rhodes, shortstop Rafael Furcal -- would each play key roles in the 18th World Series berth in franchise history?

"We were about as down as you could be," Mozeliak said of himself and La Russa. "I get up and speak, and it was sort of a consolatory speech -- 'Sorry, guys, about the season.' ... I was trying to have that hint of optimism, but it was a little bit more about 2012.

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"Tony gets up, and he was great. He talked about, 'Look, we're not quitting, we're going to play. This is tough.' And then Adam Wainwright gets up. He gives this sort of emotional, 'We're in this thing. If we can sweep the Brewers, we're right back in this thing.' It was great."

Great ... but believable?

Ha.

Truth be told, as the 107th World Series prepares to launch Wednesday, the only thing less believable than the Cardinals being here is that there really, truly is an organization in town called ... The Knights of the Cauliflower Ear?

It goes back to 1903, and it was founded by a man named Robert Hannegan, a friend of President Harry Truman's and a co-owner of the Cardinals from 1947-1949. The annual sports dinner dates back 60 or 70 years, Mozeliak says, to when wrestling was in vogue. Thus, the name.

But in a sad twist of feathers, it was the Cardinals who were suffering from Cauliflower Ear.

Now? This looks like the launch of the World Series. Sounds like it. Feels like it.

But there is absolutely no way these Cardinals should be on the same side of the Mississippi River as the Fall Classic.

They lost perennial Cy Young candidate Adam Wainwright to Tommy John ligament replacement surgery in February. They would place 17 players on the disabled list along the way. They were 67-63 after getting swept by the Dodgers and taking on water, fast.

The Cardinals are the most unlikely World Series team ever. That's not opinion, that's fact:

St. Louis is the first team ever to be 10 or more games out through Aug. 27, in the league, division or wild-card race and reach the World Series, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

This World Series trip is so improbable, the Cardinals themselves did not even bother to send advance scouts on the road during the season's final two weeks to compile information on potential playoff opponents.

Talk about Cauliflower Ear.

"It was more like, 'Look, a lot of things that we tried to plan for didn't go right,' " Mozeliak said of his talk that night, adding, "We thought we were pushing the right buttons, guess what? Not yet."

It took an incredible finish, yes, as the Cardinals won 15 of their final 20 regular season games.

It also took an enormous collapse by the Braves: No matter how hot St. Louis got, had Atlanta even gone 11-16 in September, the Cardinals would have missed the playoffs.

The Cardinals were 10½ games out of a playoff spot on Aug. 25, and 8½ out on Sept. 7.

"I think it shows you the character of these guys," Mozeliak says. "Tony, the coaching staff, the players. They just never quit. And there would have been many reasons to say this is just a tough year, if you think about the blown saves early."

Ace Chris Carpenter raves about these Cardinals, saying it is the most enjoyable club on which he's ever played in terms of the people.

And Wainwright's pep talk at the Cauliflower Ear dinner was not the first time this year he embraced his transformation from Cy Young candidate to Cy Cheerleader.

Losing him in late February should have doomed these Cardinals for good. But La Russa and the gang absorbed that body blow and kept pushing.

"We looked at what we had and we felt we had enough to contend," La Russa says. "It was a big hit, but we felt we still had enough to contend.

"After his surgery, he sent a text, or an email, and I read it to the team. What he wrote was really powerful. And the response of the club, I can remember, it was that we were good enough, we're going to carry his baton.

"It was a good conversation. The coaches were all in. And we said, these guys are going to carry the baton to the best of their ability, and that's all you can ask."

Kyle McClellan plugged into the rotation early and was nails. Berkman launched a season that would lead to his becoming the NL Comeback Player of the Year. But aside from the numbers, Berkman's value was off the charts in the clubhouse. As early as late May, during a trip to San Diego, Mozeliak was saying he had always heard Berkman was a good clubhouse guy, but he was absolutely blown away by just how good.

"Berkman was a guy where, no matter how bad things got, he would help deflect things," Mozeliak says. "He has an amazing skill at doing that."

Infielders Ryan Theriot and Nick Punto also helped change the clubhouse culture for the better. But it took a while for Punto: He suffered a sports hernia and opened the season on the disabled list. And Matt Holliday was hit early with appendicitis, which knocked him sideways in April.

Still, even with Albert Pujols off to the worst start of his career in April and May, the Cards led Milwaukee by half-a-game in the NL Central on July 26.

The next day, Mozeliak controversially traded Colby Rasmus, the center fielder whose laid-back personality never did mesh with La Russa's, to Toronto. Jackson, Dotel and Rezepcynski came back to the Cardinals in an eight-player trade. Four days after that, the Cardinals scooped up shortstop Rafael Furcal in a trade with the Dodgers.

But by the end of August, one week after the Knights of the Cauliflower Ear dinner, the Cardinals trailed Milwaukee by 8½ games and were surely cooked. It wasn't just the losses. It was the consistent, ugly late-inning losses that had the Jaws of Life folks on call to pull the Cards from the wreckage day after brutal day.

"I think you're 10½ out, and from the way we got there, the tough blown saves, the tough losses, I think a lot of teams would have caved," Mozeliak says. "It just shows you the character of these men."

Back to what Carpenter, and others, rave about.

"The players in here, Mo, Tony, the whole staff ... we never lost faith," Wainwright says.

"Guys truly get along," Mozeliak says. "I think the friendships are genuine, and probably long-lasting. It just seems like there's a lot of, without sounding weird, harmony and peace in that clubhouse. It's refreshing to see."

No way the Miracle Cardinals pull off this comeback without that, the GM says.

"They like coming to work," he says. "They enjoy what they do. There's a lot of people who pulled that rope and allowed for that to happen. I'm grateful to have these guys assembled."

But there was more. Dotel and Rhodes, picked up off of waivers from Texas (of all teams) in early August, melded into the 'pen. So had Lance Lynn and Fernando Salas, who were in Triple-A Memphis when the season started.

All these moves all factored into how the Cardinals survived the crushing loss of Wainwright and others, too. Lynn missed the final 46 games of the season with an oblique injury. Another blow.

"You try to realize a baseball roster on April 1 is going to change," Mozeliak says. "You learn in this job, it's fluid. You're trying to set yourself up to where you make yourself as close to competitive as soon as possible, but understanding that things happen."

Things change. They evolve.

"Nothing's ever, boom!," Mozeliak says.

Except, well ... the past six weeks in St. Louis.

In June, Pujols started to hit (like anybody ever doubted he would, eventually). Berkman was en route to 31 home runs and 94 RBI. Holliday, 22 and 75. Jon Jay played in 159 games and flourished in center fielder once the Cards traded Rasmus.

And eventually, La Russa sorted his relievers into the proper roles -- even if he still hasn't officially dubbed Jason Motte as "closer."

When did Motte finally know the role was his?

"I still don't," Motte exclaimed, whooping it up amid the champagne celebration the other night in Milwaukee. "It's one of those things where I go down with the others to the bullpen, and I pitch whenever he tells me.

"He's the boss. He's got his numbers. He's got the stats, this and that."

Including their postseason run, the Cardinals have won 30 of their past 43 games. But even something like this nearly wasn’t enough. The last Thursday of the season, leading the Mets 6-2, St. Louis gave up six runs in the ninth in yet another gut-wrenching loss.

La Russa still recalls Berkman coming in after that train wreck and saying, "Hey, we can lose a game here or there. We just can't lose many."

Even though the Cardinals would lose again the next day, before winning four of their last five games, they survived because the Philadelphia Phillies -- which had already clinched -- were sweeping Atlanta in the season's final series. You bet the Cardinals respectfully saluted the Phillies for the integrity with which they played those final games. Then they ambushed the Phillies in the Division Series.

"Some days we didn't play good enough, but we always tried," La Russa says of what makes him proudest of these Cardinals. "Just like I remember Catfish Hunter used to say, it's not being perfect, it's trying perfect. And our club tried perfect all year."

Somewhere, La Russa says, he still has the printout of Wainwright's post-surgery email (or text) to the Cardinals that the manager read aloud to the team this spring. Yes, the manager says, he's going to find it -- and keep it.

The World Series is here. And so are the Cardinals.

Their Cauliflower Ear, gone.

"I remember that night we end up getting into the postseason," Mozeliak says. "We're down in Houston, Punto comes up and hits me in the stomach and says, 'Do you remember that bankers dinner?'

"And I'm like, 'Yeah.' Ever since that night, things went pretty good."

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