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LOUIS -- The Cardinals flew back to San Francisco as Friday night morphed into Saturday morning, without their fourth National League pennant in nine years and still seeking their third World Series championship in seven seasons. But this team, that is deep into October without Tony La Russa, Albert Pujols, Lance Berkman or Rafael Furcal, once again showed the baseball world that the culture that is the Cardinal tradition withstands exiles and injuries.
We have watched as a kid named Trevor Rosenthal, who 13 months ago was pitching in the Midwest League playoffs, has been this October's revelation, regularly throwing between 96 and 102 miles per hour, striking out a ridiculous 11 and allowing one hit in his 6 1/3 innings of postseason relief. We have watched Matt Carpenter come off the bench, homer, see 28 pitches in Game 3, and Peter Kozma play the way 2011 World Series MVP David Freese, Allen Craig and Jon Jay revealed themselves last fall.
Remember, it was Branch Rickey and the Cardinals who invented the farm system. It was George Kissell who became one of the greatest development figures in baseball history -- just ask Joe Torre. Now, with Gary LaRoque at the helm, that tradition continues.
"It is a culture that you learn as you go through the system," said Freese. "You learn fundamentals. You learn that it is all about hard work, and, most of all, it is all about winning. That is what they stress. It's not about stats or being [on] the top prospects lists. It's about developing players."
"It absolutely is a culture," said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. "The people in scouting and development do a tremendous job. There is a culture when the young players get to the Major Leagues, because of the leadership of players like Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina." The threesome, incidentally, who have been through it together in 2006, 2011 and, now, 2012.
"I think the environment of St. Louis is part of the process," says Matheny. "There is a different view of the Cardinals here than the way some teams are treated and players are viewed. Obviously, there are cities where players are expected to come up and produce at a very high level -- and if they don't ... the patience level isn't high."
From a distance, the Cardinals have watched the hysteria around the Yankees' defeat at the hands of the Tigers. They have seen Alex Rodriguez become a punch and story line. They have seen Curtis Granderson -- who hit 43 homers and is what every Yankees fan should want his son to be -- get benched and degraded. In New York and Boston, the media, the talkers and the clubs themselves eat their own -- be it A-Rod, Jorge Posada, Joe Torre, Nomar Garciaparra, Josh Beckett, Terry Francona or Johnny Damon.
Not here. The Cardinals reacted to the Pujols departure by signing Carlos Beltran and allowing Freese, Craig, Jay, Matt Carpenter, Kozma and Daniel Descalso to develop into winning players. No one really knew anything about Jay, Freese, Craig and Carpenter early in 2011, and they are all key contributors to a lineup that this postseason has scored almost 50 percent more runs than the next highest-scoring team, the Tigers.
Last season, they made Jason Motte, who had three career saves, the closer in late August, and made him the postseason closer. In 2012, he saved 42 games. They threw Lance Lynn into the 'pen in the postseason, and this season he won 18 games as a starter and made the All-Star team.
This October, Joe Kelly, Rosenthal and Shelby Miller are all pitching in the postseason. They are preparing in the fire for next season, when one will replace ace Kyle Lohse in the rotation, another will start, a third will be a power reliever -- all while waiting for Carlos Martinez to arrive in midseason. By next September, Oscar Tavares will likely be playing in the outfield, and Kolten Wong will be playing a lot at second base.
"We aren't afraid to take young players and play them in the postseason," says general manager John Mozeliak. "I think what happened last season helps the process along. We trust the judgement and work of our development staff, and so we give these kids a chance to play under pressure."
This is increasingly important in a game that, with drug testing, is becoming increasingly younger, more athletic and more versatile.
Branch Rickey was a decade ahead of his time when he started the farm system. Kissell was simply a time zone ahead of everyone else when it came to developing and teaching young players. And LaRoque, who could easily be the general manager of a building organization, has carried on the tradition.
Here in St. Louis, they don't need headlines from free-agent signings or react to losing in the Division Series three straight years by giving A-Rod a contract larger than the GNP of Peru. They do what they do, and are in San Francisco trying to bring home their fourth pennant in nine years.