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In exhilarating playoffs, best is yet to come

O's, Royals offer fresh feel; Giants, Cards are dynasties in the making

We pause now to appreciate what we have just seen in this postseason. Has there been a better nine days of baseball? If your idea of great baseball is amazing theater, then this might be the sport's finest hour.

Just when we think we've seen a game that is so good and so close that we'll savor it through the winter months until the boys show up in Arizona and Florida again, there's another one -- just as good, just as close.

There are things we can measure. Ten of 16 postseason games have been decided by one run. Twelve times, the deciding run has been scored in the seventh inning or later.

In one of those games, it came in the 18th, at the end of a six-hour, 23-minute contest that will live in the hearts and minds of Giants and Nationals fans for years. But almost every game has had its share of tension and expectation.

We've seen young stars emerge, like Matt Adams, Brandon Belt and Jon Jay. We've seen the Royals and Orioles back on the big stage, both performing superbly.

Welcome back to the American League Championship Series, fellas. Has it really been 17 years for the O's and 29 years for the Royals? We've missed you. You're not just terrific baseball teams. You both serve as an excellent lesson on scouting, managing and leadership and all the other things you bring to the table in spades.

Once upon a time, they were arguably baseball's two most admired franchises. They were smart and efficient, and they did more with less than others. They played in cities in which the sport was important, in which people cared deeply.

They had iconic stars: George Brett and Cal Ripken Jr., Dan Quisenberry and Frank Robinson. Both teams have endured some tough times, and so when you see those beautiful ballparks full again, when you see the crowd shots of fans who are into it in every way, you're reminded why we love this stuff.

There aren't that many times when professional sports teams have a city in the palm of its hand, when folks live it and breathe it, when they count down the minutes until first pitch.

In times like this, the whole thing has a magical feel, and that's how it is in Baltimore and Kansas City right now. Hats off to Royals owner David Glass, who hired a great baseball man named Dayton Moore and then stayed the course with him when it wasn't easy, when it took longer than anyone wanted.

Now look at these Royals, this club with a defense so good you'll turn on the television to watch Alex Gordon's glovework or Alcides Escobar go in the hole to make a difficult play look easy.

And these Orioles are a team with a great manager, Buck Showalter; a team expertly constructed by general manager Dan Duquette; a team led by Adam Jones, a leader in the clubhouse and on the field, the player who most exemplifies what the club is about.

Now about the National League Championship Series: Having the Giants and Cardinals back feels like getting caught up with two old friends. This is the fourth time they've played one another in the NLCS -- most recently in 2012, but also in 2002 and 1987.

Combined, the Giants and Cardinals have won the World Series three times in the last four years and four times in the last eight. Inside the industry, they might be the two most admired franchises.

The Giants are attempting to win the World Series for the third time in five seasons. The Cardinals are going for three out of nine. At a time when baseball has never had more parity, these two franchises stand apart for finding a formula that works. Neither spends gobs of money, either.

This season, the Giants had baseball's seventh-highest payroll; the Cardinals, 13th. Baseball's top six payroll teams -- and 11 of the top 12 -- are all gone from the playoffs.

It's not about money. It's about ownership and management. It's about leadership in the clubhouse and teamwork on the field.

You think those things sound like cliches, don't you? Go ask the managers, Bruce Bochy and Mike Matheny, if they think that. They'll tell you that those things are at the core of everything they do.

The Giants are back for another run with five rookies, with a club that fits together seamlessly. There's the big-game cool of Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey to the everyday relentless energy of Hunter Pence.

No manager on the planet is more highly regarded than Bochy. And when Tony La Russa retired after winning the World Series in 2011, there was a feeling it could be tough to replace a legend. Mike Matheny has kept things rolling, because he's great with the players and he's poised. He's also, like Bochy, part of a greater organization, with a general manager John Mozeliak, who is the blueprint for what the modern general manager ought to be.

The Cardinals have the unshakable leadership of Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright and Matt Holliday, but they have new faces, too -- Kolten Wong, Shelby Miller and Jay.

Neither the Giants nor Cardinals have had a particularly easy season. At the end of the day, they both stayed the course and had the belief that if they stuck to their core beliefs, things would work out.

So here they are again, each four victories from another World Series. Both of them celebrated wildly on Tuesday after their clinching NL Division Series victories. They're a reminder why we love sports, why we admire the guys in the arena, fighting and clawing.

As we move to the next round, there are so many storylines and so much promise that it's difficult to get the mind around it all. Here's to more of a great ride.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
Read More: Baltimore Orioles, San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals, Kansas City Royals