2006 Cardinals: Best 83-Win Team in History?

"I'll tell you exactly when it happened," said Eckstein, the 5-foot-7 mighty-mite shortstop who became the shortest World Series MVP in history. "You have to go back to Game 1 against the Padres. Bases loaded. Seventh inning. Tyler Johnson on the mound. Todd Walker at bat. And he hit a ball through the right side that looked like a sure hit.

"But Ronnie Belliard was playing about 20 feet out on the outfield grass. He made a diving stop and got us out of that inning with an unbelievable play. And when people ask, 'What was the moment it all came together?' -- that was it."

It wasn't so much that that play won that game, because the Cardinals were already ahead, 5-1. But there's a feeling that sometimes comes over teams after plays like that which are bigger than those plays themselves. And the man in center field, Jim Edmonds, thought he recognized that feeling when he saw it.

So Edmonds gathered his teammates around him in the clubhouse after that game -- and awarded a game ball to Ron Belliard. And that, said Eckstein, "was the moment."

Every time the Cardinals won an October baseball game, from that day on, they assembled afterward and awarded those game balls. To one, to two, to three men who had risen to meet that day's biggest moments.

It sounds like a scene out of "Friday Night Lights," not a scene you'd envision in a real, live major-league locker room full of real, live major-league players during a real, live baseball postseason. But this really happened, in the Cardinals' actual life. And somehow, for this team, it worked.

"It worked because we were probably trying to do the impossible," Eckstein said. "And we knew we only had each other to rely on. Every team needs somebody to speak up and take on the responsibilities of leadership. And Jim Edmonds was that player on this club. When he speaks, everyone listens. And the dynamic of this club changed the moment he stepped forward in San Diego."

Next thing you knew, this team wasn't collapsing anymore. Next thing you knew, these Cardinals had forgotten that any of that September ugliness had ever happened.

They chewed up the Padres in four games. They upset the Mets on a ninth-inning Game 7 home run by their .216-hitting catcher. Then they laughed at all the geniuses who thought they'd be nothing but bird feed for a Tigers team that had slain the Yankees and A's.

They watched Detroit take a quick 1-0 lead in the first inning of the World Series. Then they did what they'd been doing all month: They answered that run about three seconds after America came back from a few words from its World Series sponsors.

Twelve times in the Cardinals' final 12 postseason games, they scored at least one run the next half-inning after allowing the other team to score. They did that, in fact, more than 50 percent of the time after the Mets or Tigers scored in the LCS or Series.

No wonder this team always seemed in such control of so many of those games -- because it was.

Back when things were crumbling in September, said injured closer Jason Isringhausen, it wasn't as if that bumbling, stumbling version of the Cardinals was getting obliterated every night. That incarnation of this team just never seemed to make that big play or score that big run or make that big pitch that transformed those losses into wins.

When October arrived, however, the Cardinals seemed to do all those things.

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