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Recent World Series champion Cardinals haven’t always been best team in regular season

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John Stuper

The Cardinals' John Stuper delivers a pitch in the first inning of Game 6 of the 1982 World Series, en route to a complete-game 13-1 victory on Oct. 19 in St. Louis. 

Ben Frederickson and Daniel Guerrero preview the best-of-three series, from slumping Paul Goldschmidt to the Phillies' shaky defense.

The Cardinals have won three World Series in the past 55 years, which may not seem like a lot, except that only the New York Yankees (seven) and Boston Red Sox (four) have more.

But, like this season, in the three World Series the Cardinals have won since 1967 they were not considered the favorites in any of them.

In 1982, the Cardinals were underdogs to “Harvey’s Wallbangers,” the power-hitting Milwaukee Brewers club managed by Harvey Kuenn, which led the majors in homers and outdistanced the Baltimore Orioles in the American League Eastern Division and then overcame a 2-0 California Angels lead in the best-of-five league championship series.

But, while fate was unkind to the Cardinals, who had better teams going into the 1985 and 1987 World Series but didn’t have injured players Vince Coleman, Jack Clark and Terry Pendleton, the Cardinals caught a break when future Hall of Fame closer Rollie Fingers of the Brewers suffered an arm injury late in 1982 and couldn’t pitch in the Series.

The Cardinals prevailed in seven games, and as usually happens, a player not highly publicized rose to the occasion.

Rookie John Stuper, who won nine games in the regular season, overcame two rain delays, including one of 2 hours 13 minutes, to pitch a complete-game, four-hitter in a 13-1 win that evened the Series at 3-3 before the Cardinals won Game 7 the next night.

Stuper pitched well past midnight, but manager Whitey Herzog wanted him to get the shutout although Stuper allowed a run in the ninth.

“For him to pitch nine innings was one of the most impressive performances I’ve ever seen under the circumstances,” said Hall of Famer Jim Kaat, a left-hander in the Cardinals’ bullpen.

“But,” said Stuper, “I never was more nervous in my life. At both of my weddings, I wasn’t that nervous.”

Stuper sensed that his teammates knew that. “They realized who Whitey was sending me out there and they said, ‘OK, we’d better score some runs,’” he joked.

Stuper had his most wins the next season at 12-11 but was out of major league baseball two years later at age 28 after a succession of arm injuries.

Ultimately, he became a successful baseball coach at Yale, where one of his captains in 2001 was Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

The Cardinals also caught a break that year when, in the first game of the best-of-five National League Championship Series, Atlanta’s Phil Niekro had the Cardinals shut out 1-0 through four innings but it rained and, although the rules have changed now, the game was rubbed out because it didn’t go five innings.

Bob Forsch blanked the Braves in the new Game 1 and the Cardinals won the series in three games.

In 2006, the Cardinals lost seven games in late September to put the Houston Astros back in the National League Central Division race but held on to win despite the loss of several players to injuries. The Cardinals’ record of 83-78 was their worst for any of the division or league champions they have had.

Some of the players, such as center fielder Jim Edmonds, came back for the postseason but closer Jason Isringhausen, who suffered a season-ending hip injury on Labor Day, did not.

Having finished so poorly, the Cardinals were given little chance to win the World Series and maybe not even a playoff round. But, thanks to a game-saving defensive play by second baseman Ronnie Belliard, a mid-season pickup not particularly renowned for his defense, the Cardinals defeated San Diego three games to one in the division series.

In Game 1 in San Diego, the Padres had the bases loaded in the sixth inning and down 5-1 when Belliard dived to snag Todd Walker’s smash, rolled over and fired to first to nip Walker for the final out.

“That saved the game for us,” Edmonds said. “If they get two runs in right there, we’re in trouble.”

First baseman Albert Pujols said, “I never thought he was going to get to the ball.”

In the clubhouse, Edmonds presented Belliard with a game ball, a process rarely undertaken outside of football.

“I think I got lucky on that one.” Belliard said.

To replace Isringhausen, the Cardinals used veteran Braden Looper and rookie Adam Wainwright down the stretch. Wainwright, to whom manager Tony La Russa committed in the postseason, famously struck out Carlos Beltran with the bases loaded in Game 7 in New York to end the National League Championship Series with the Mets.

Then, rookie Anthony Reyes, who was 5-8 with a 5.06 earned run average in the regular season, was given the Game 1 start in the World Series against the favored Detroit Tigers. Reyes held the Tigers to two runs and four hits over eight innings and the Cardinals were on their way to winning four of five games to capture the Series.

Reyes would have a 13-26 record in the majors.

In 2011, the year of their last World Series triumph, the Cardinals barely made the playoff field at all, sneaking into the wild-card playoff berth after the Philadelphia Phillies, having already clinched the National League Eastern Division, beat the Braves three games in succession during the last series of the season when the Phillies really didn’t have to. Their reward wound up being a five-game league division series against the Cardinals.

Even though the Phillies won 102 games to the Cardinals’ 90, the teams split the first four games with longtime friends and Toronto teammates Chris Carpenter of the Cardinals and Roy Halladay of the Phillies matched up in Game 5 in Philadelphia.

Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said Thursday, “I’ve thought about it a lot. It became almost like a fork in the road. One went right and one went left. It was such an epic game.”

The Cardinals had a 1-0 lead two batters into the game after Rafeal Furcal tripled and current Cardinals coach Skip Schumaker doubled. That was the final score.

From there, the Cardinals went on to beat the Central Division champion Milwaukee Brewers four games to two in the NLCS after the Brewers had been pushed to the five-game limit by rookie Paul Goldschmidt and the Arizona Diamondbacks in the division round.

That postseason was the one in which David Freese became the unsung hero who will be sung about forever around here. After a barrage of strikeouts early in the Philadelphia series, Freese hit a key home run against the Phillies, became the NLCS MVP by hitting .545 with three home runs against Milwaukee and then he tripled, homered and doubled over consecutive at-bats in Games 6 and 7 of the 2011 World Series as the Cardinals escaped the Texas Rangers.

The Phillies, meanwhile, haven’t been to the postseason since 2011 — until now.

Here, in 2022, the Cardinals, who had an excellent season at 93-69, still had only the fourth best record in the National League and the sixth best in the majors. So, they are not on everybody’s short list as potential champions.

But they have items that play in October, including a deep bullpen and the league’s best defense.

They have star power in Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado and yet again Pujols.

But, if the Cardinals charge on to their fourth World Series title since Bob Gibson’s 1967 Cardinals, a lesser light surely will have come forward.

Dylan Carlson? Tommy Edman? Jordan Montgomery? Jose Quintana?

Quintana has the first chance, being named the starter for Game 1 in his first appearance as a postseason starter since 2017 when he made two for the Chicago Cubs. In one those starts, against the eventual league champion Los Angeles Dodgers, Quintana allowed eight runs in seven innings. In the other, he allowed no earned runs in 6 1/3 innings to Washington.

Combined with Pittsburgh and the Cardinals this year Quintana has an under .500 won-loss mark at 6-7. He will be the first Cardinals pitcher with a losing record to start the first game of the postseason since 2019 when Miles Mikolas was 9-14 when he opened the 2019 playoffs for the Cardinals. If Mikolas had opened this year’s wild-card series with the Phillies, he also would have had a losing regular-season record at 12-13. As Adam Wainwright (11-12) would have, if he were to start.

Such is the matter of postseason baseball. You often throw out the regular-season records. Sometimes, you don’t even look at them.

Now, you have only to be the best team for four weeks. Not six months.

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Rick Hummel is a Cardinals beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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