The St. Louis Cardinals weren't even sure there was a spot for them in these playoffs heading into the final day of the regular season.
Much like their improbable run to the 2006 title, nobody gave the Cardinals a chance this postseason, considering they had been 10 1/2 games out of a playoff spot as late as August 25 and were already without their top pitcher in right-hander Adam Wainwright, who was lost for the season back in spring training thanks to Tommy John surgery.
The Cardinals, though, went 23-8 to close the season and secured the wild card when the Philadelphia Phillies completed a three-game sweep of the Braves with a dramatic extra inning win on the final day of the season.
"I just know that we hung tough when a lot of things were going against us, and then we put together this run," said manager Tony La Russa. "And even in this run, we had some losses that will break your heart. And the next day they came out [saying], 'Hey, let's go get 'em again.' ... We had some help here and there, but we made a lot of it ourselves."
St. Louis then shocked the baseball world by taking out the 102-win Phillies with a heart-pounding 1-0 win in a decisive Game 5 at Citizens Bank Park, as Chris Carpenter tossed a three-hit shutout to outduel Roy Halladay.
"The feeling in this clubhouse is winning," said Carpenter, who will take the hill in Game 1 on Wednesday. "We've been playing hard all year long. There were some ups and downs here and there, but the last two or so months, we started to put it together and played hard."
A familiar foe in the Milwaukee Brewers awaited them in the National League Championship Series, but the result was the same, as the Cardinals again defied the odds and took the NL Central champions out in six games, becoming the 10th wild card winner to reach the World Series.
"When this club gets together years from now," La Russa said, "they will go, 'Hey, remember what we did?'"
Led by a terrific bullpen and the surprising heroics of the unheralded David Freese, the Cardinals are back in the World Series for the 18th time in team history.
"We believe. That's what you have to do in this game. We have a group of guys with talent, desire and a ton of heart," Freese said. "It's an unbelievable feeling to be part of this organization with this group of guys. It means a lot."
Freese totaled 12 hits in the NLCS and garnered MVP honors, but that award could have easily gone to the entire bullpen corps of the Cardinals.
Carrying eight relievers, La Russa made use of each and every one of his arms, as the Cardinals became the first team to win a postseason series when their starters failed to go more than five innings in any of the six games.
St. Louis' bullpen, which ranked 21st in the majors in the regular season with a 3.95 ERA, pitched in just over 54 percent of the team's innings -- the fifth-highest percentage ever for an LCS -- and contributed a 1.58 ERA. La Russa also broke his own NLCS record by making 28 pitching changes.
"You don't want to end the game thinking that you had weapons that you didn't use," La Russa said, explaining his quick hooks in the series. "You just don't have that kind of patience that you can have [in the regular season]."
The bullpen was spearheaded by a pair of mid-season acquisitions in lefty Mark Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel, who along with righty Edwin Jackson came over from Toronto as part of the Colby Rasmus deal.
Closer Jason Motte, the fifth such pitcher to be used in that role, has also found his rhythm, as he converted eight of nine saves in September and has saved four games in the playoffs without allowing a run in eight innings.
As good as the bullpen was and as many contributions as La Russa got from his entire lineup, St. Louis still enters this series with three-time NL MVP Albert Pujols, who after a sub-par season by his own standards, reminded everyone in the NLCS that he is still the best player in the game.
Pujols, a free agent at season's end, hit .478 against the Brewers with a pair of home runs and eight RBI. Helping him, though, is the fact that Matt Holliday appears to be healthy after missing most of the NLDS with a finger injury.
"Everybody's got to contribute," Pujols said. "This is not one guy carrying the whole ballclub. Twenty-five guys need to step up, big-time."
Texas, meanwhile, is back in the World Series for a second straight season, but this appearance may be extra special, as it returns following an offseason that saw ace left-hander Cliff Lee bolt as a free agent to Philadelphia.
And while the Rangers are in the Fall Classic for the second time in franchise history, Lee could be the biggest goat of the postseason after blowing a four- run lead to the Cardinals in Game 2 of the NLDS.
But, that's not to say they couldn't use Lee right now because like the Cardinals, the Rangers received next to nothing from their starting rotation in their six-game win over the Detroit Tigers in the ALCS.
As they have been doing all season, the Rangers rode their incredible lineup to get by and got a record-setting performance from right fielder Nelson Cruz who set the all-time mark for most home runs (six) and RBI (13) in a postseason series on his way to MVP honors.
"When the team needed me I delivered. It was an amazing run. ... It's special, it's everything I can ask for," said Cruz, who was limited to just 124 games this regular season because of hamstring injuries.
Texas is just the fifth franchise to win consecutive AL pennants since the LCS round was introduced in 1969.
"It's amazing. I couldn't be prouder of this group of men," Rangers president Nolan Ryan said.
As the Cardinals did, the Rangers strengthened their bullpen at the trade deadline, acquiring right-handers Mike Adams and Koji Uehara. However, it has been a starter from this season who has dominated in the bullpen for the Rangers here in October.
Right-hander Alexi Ogando, who won 13 games and earned a trip to the All-Star Game in his first year as a full-time starter this season, has been exceptional out of the bullpen in the postseason, allowing just a run and four hits, while striking out 12 in 10 1/3 innings of work.
Ogando picked up two wins in the series against the Tigers, as Rangers starters C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis, Derek Holland and Matt Harrison combined for a 6.59 ERA in the ALCS. The rotation also has just one quality start in 10 postseason games.
"If you would have said at the beginning of [the ALCS] that our starting pitching wasn't going to do well," said Rangers outfielder David Murphy, "I'm sure it would've made some guys nervous around here. But our bullpen came up so big, that all we needed to do was get our starter through four or five innings."
With Uehara (33.75 ERA) struggling, Ogando was called upon time and time again to help set the bridge to Adams and closer Neftali Feliz, who has surrendered just one run in the postseason.
The Rangers lineup, though, is loaded from 1-through-9 with former MVP Josh Hamilton leading the way, along with the likes of Ian Kinsler, Adrian Beltre, Cruz and the incredibly underrated Michael Young, who was the team's best player this season, hitting .338 with 106 RBI.
Catcher Mike Napoli has also delivered here in October, as he has hit safely in eight of 10 games and is hitting .316.
Texas easily claimed its second straight American League West title this season with 96 wins and entered the playoffs as the second seed in the AL. The Rangers then made quick work of the Tampa Bay Rays in the ALDS, beating them in four games before taking care of the Tigers.
"Behold, here we are with another opportunity," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "They deserve a ton of credit. They got so much character in that clubhouse, so much drive. And as I said, we are a team, and that's the way they handle their business -- as a team."
The 96 wins were a franchise high and a feat shared by St. Louis' first two victims, as Philadelphia's 102 wins and Milwaukee's 96 victories were also the most in their team's history.
There is obviously zero postseason history between these teams and really no head-to-head information, as the clubs have only met once in interleague play with the Cardinals taking two of three back in 2004.
Everything on paper suggests that the Texas Rangers should win this series. They have a better lineup than the Cardinals, aside from Carpenter, they have an edge in the starting pitching department, and while their bullpens have proven to be equal here in October, I'd still rather go with the Rangers group if push came to shown. But, with that said, there is something going on with this Cardinals team. Everyone counted them out in the final week of the regular season, everyone counted them out against the Phils in the NLDS and not many people gave them a chance against the Brewers in the NLCS. But here they are still standing. And let's not forget they still do have the best player on the planet in Pujols. If La Russa's 2006 team was the worst team to ever win a World Series, this group might be a close second. Call me crazy, but I think the Cardinals get another title.
Prediction: CARDINALS in SIX