Tight-knit Cards show importance of chemistry
ST. LOUIS -- The cardinal rule of clubhouse chemistry is that it only exists, in terms of public perception, on the winning clubs. Nobody touts the tight-knit nature of a losing ballclub, even if the guys accounting for that sub-.500 standing do happen to get along more than they get on base.So when I tell you that the St. Louis Cardinals get along quite well, your natural reaction ought to be, "Well, why wouldn't they?"
After all, the Cards are three wins away from getting back to the World Series, and they have proven, once again, to be a team superior to their postseason seeding.But if you want positive proof of the degree to which they embrace each other, look no further than the top step of that dugout Wednesday (3 p.m. CT on FOX), when the National League Championship Series against the Giants resumes at Busch Stadium. When one guy is at the plate, you will see 24 others on the rail, rooting him on, living and dying with each pitch. And if that batter happens to hit a home run, you will see them lined up in that dugout, forming a receiving line of hand slaps and high-fives. "I've been on some teams where there was an indifference," veteran Lance Berkman said. "This team is different. We're very close. You could vacation with 90 percent of the people in here." When general manager John Mozeliak heard that quote, he laughed. "Who the [heck] are the 10?" Mozeliak said. "I'll have to ask him that." All right, so maybe the Cards aren't batting 1.000 in the department of vacation plans. But last year's inexplicable experience of storming back in the NL Wild Card race, running away with the NL pennant and winning one of the most thrilling World Series in history created some unbreakable bonds in that Cardinals clubhouse. And getting back to October has once again brought out the best in this bunch -- an appreciation for the stage and surroundings, and an appreciation for each other. "It's something that's in the culture here," center fielder Jon Jay said. "If you're on the bench, you'd better be cheering for your teammates and pulling for guys and just bringing positive energy. That's what it's all about." Nobody fulfills that obligation better than Chris Carpenter. Plenty of laudatory words have been written about the work he put in, both before and after thoracic outlet syndrome surgery, to ensure he'd be back in the rotation by season's end. His Game 2 performance at AT&T Park proved that the consistency of his command is still not where it likely would be if he had a full season under his belt. But whether Carpenter has been on the active roster or not this year, he's made it a point to remain a familiar face in the clubhouse and a regular rooter on the bench. "He was our No. 1 cheerleader [when he was hurt]," Mozeliak said. "Now, having him active and as our No. 1 cheerleader really solidifies what he's meant to this organization." The Cardinals can't help but wonder what a full season with Carpenter and with the present bullpen alignment would have meant for their competitive chances in the NL Central. They would have loved to have this current playoff roster for the six-month season. "This is a different team than the 88-win Cardinal team," Berkman said. "When you put Carpenter back in the rotation and get Joe Kelly in bullpen and [Trevor] Rosenthal developing and we added Ed Mujica ... if we would have had this setup the whole season, we would have won 100 games." And that's an interesting statement from Berkman, considering the current setup doesn't include him. But Berkman's words speak to the belief this club has not only in its talents but its ability to handle the pressures of the postseason. Experience is ultimately only what you make of it, and it is fair to wonder now whether the Nationals' inexperience in closing out postseason series is what precipitated their Game 5 demise against this well-tested Cardinals team. Part of the intrigue of this NLCS is that it pits the last two World Series winners against each other, and so the experience factor is about even. And the Giants aren't exactly short on clubhouse chemistry, either. They describe themselves as a spiritual group -- one that showed no tolerance for Melky Cabrera's transgressions, even if bringing him back into the fold for the postseason might have augmented the batting order. That's a value equation GMs factor in all the time: How much should character count, relative to statistics? For his part, Mozeliak said his thought process has evolved to the point of putting more emphasis on the character equation. "Back in 2010, we really felt we had to change the makeup of our clubhouse," he said. "We brought in guys like [Ryan] Theriot, [Gerald] Laird, Berkman. It just brought a level of professionalism and fun to our clubhouse. ... When you're young in this job, the first thing you're looking at is talent first. Then you realize it's got to be a tight-knit group for long-term success." The Cardinals are successful, and they are certainly tight-knit. If they win seven more games this season, they'll have capitalized on that chemistry in a way few others have, claiming consecutive World Series championship crowns. And when it's all over, win or lose, maybe 90 percent of them will take Berkman up on that vacation idea.