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Sports | Cards come together late to win series

Issue: "Iraq and terrorism," Nov. 11, 2006

Without a three-run home run by Albert Pujols on Sept. 28, the Cardinals may not have even made it to the playoffs. Pujols' 8th-inning go-ahead blast gave St. Louis a win over San Diego in the final week of the regular season and stemmed a seven-game losing streak that saw the Cardinals' NL Central lead dwindle to a game and a half.

By winning the World Series late last month, St. Louis managed to beat the 1987 Minnesota Twins club (85 wins) for fewest regular season wins by a championship team. The Cardinals managed an anemic 83-78 record in the regular season.

Fans might naturally ask why this Cardinals team that sliced so easily through the playoffs struggled so much even to make the playoffs. Answer: It wasn't the same team that started the season. Amazingly, Cardinals management acquired 10 of the players on its closing roster by trade, waivers, or promotion from the minor leagues during 2006. The Cardinals-and especially St. Louis' bullpen-coalesced just in time for the club to make the playoffs and then make its run.

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The Cardinals even added three scrap-heap players who each in his own way gave St. Louis a boost. Both Preston Wilson, released by Houston near midseason, and Ronnie Belliard, a trade-deadline acquisition, played extensively in the playoffs. Jeff Weaver, a cast-off from the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers, pitched a gem for the Cardinals, clinching Game 5. "Unbelievable," said Weaver moments after the champagne exploded in the Cardinals locker room. "I've come a long way this year. Just like this team, I guess. New York seems like a long time ago right now."

The bullpen seemed to materialize out of thin air after losing closer Jason Isringhausen to injury. Just in time, rookies Adam Wainwright and Tyler Johnson stepped into crucial roles and excelled. "Everybody on our team knew if we could just get in the playoffs that anything could happen, and boy it did," relief pitcher Braden Looper said. "Once we got there, we just started playing together, we started getting a few breaks, and the rest is history."

Around the Horn

NFL: Carolina wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson doesn't appreciate being compared to Dallas wide receiver Terrell Owens, who took Johnson's spot in the Cowboys lineup this season. Owens, said Johnson in a scathing interview prior to his Oct. 29 game against Dallas, "is not better than me. He is going to stay behind me, I don't care what the statistics say. He is behind me from the draft to the world in general, in life as a person, as a man and as a player on the football field. I am complete."

NBA: If Isaiah Thomas coaxes a winning season out of the listless New York Knicks, it will likely be without veteran forward Jalen Rose. The former Fab-5 Michigan standout received walking papers from the Knicks after never impressing Thomas, the Knicks GM and coach, during preseason. Rose struggled to return to all-star form after he left the Toronto Raptors.

NBA: The NBA has slapped Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban with over $1.5 million in fines for his outspoken critiques of the league's officiating. Now it seems like Cuban will either have to change even more or open his pocketbook wider. The NBA owners approved a measure to establish a code of conduct that will almost certainly ban part of what has made Cuban famous: participating in team huddles and vocally complaining from his courtside seat.

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