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Central Division win was definitely worth the wait

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 28, 2009 - A year and one month ago in Denver, Barack Obama officially won the Democratic nomination for president.

Saturday night, the St. Louis Cardinals won the bid to represent the National League Central Division in a NL Divisional Series in that same Mile High City.

There was no guarantee Obama would prevail in presidential race against John McCain. But things looked good for him heading into the fall.

The same is true with the Cardinals. They are Obama’s pick to win the World Series and most odds makers seem to favor the Redbirds to reach the Fall Classic.

Granted, it took the Cards a few more games than expected to clinch the division. They were watching from Denver on Thursday night when a two-out, two-strike ninth-inning home run for the Chicago Cubs helped the Northsiders prevail 3-2 over the San Francisco Giants.

Defying their character, the Cubs kept winning; giving the Cards had a chance to clinch on the field on Friday night with ace Chris Carpenter. Oops. A 2-1 loss.

But a 6-3 win on Saturday led to a champagne celebration.

That’s the kind of season that it has been for the Cardinals. For every down, there has been a more-important up.

On Opening Day in April, the only heat on that frigid afternoon was closer Jason Motte being torched in the ninth inning. A sure win turned into a tough defeat. But it set the wheels in motion that put Ryan Franklin in the team’s closer role. He earned a spot on the All-Star team and has been integral to the Cards’ six-month run to the division title.

Khalil Greene was clean-up hitter and starting shortstop on that same winter-like day. But mental demons soon fell on Greene like the heavy snowflakes that bombarded Busch Stadium the morning of the season’s first game.

Greene’s stints on the disabled list created a chance for Brendan Ryan at shortstop. This energetic go-getter could win the Gold Glove at shortstop. His defense has been invaluable and his youthful spirit is just what the roster needs.

Carpenter was injured early in the season, but came back to become the NL’s most dominant pitcher for weeks at a time. He could win the Cy Young Award, and if he doesn’t, it will most likely go to teammate Adam Wainwright.

Cardinal Nation was fit-to-be-tied at the All-Star Break because the Cardinals had not made a move to improve a team that often struggled offensively. It had also had enough of Chris Duncan’s futility and stated that loud and clear over the radio airwaves.

The Cards then landed Mark De Rosa in a trade with the Cleveland Indians that sent Chris Perez to the American League. Out of sight, out of mind.

Then the team sent Duncan packing in a deal for infielder Julio Lugo, who had been thrown on the scrap heap by the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox are even paying his salary. De Rosa brought immediate impact to the team, and Lugo turned out to be a vital cog in the Cards’ arsenal.

There was still grumbling that the team had not done enough. Days later, Matt Holliday was acquired from the Oakland A’s. He simply has been spectacular as a Cardinal.

Todd Wellemeyer somehow forgot how to pitch this season and Kyle Lohse came into the season with a big new contract, but just kept getting injured. The Cards went back to the same Red Sox discard pile where they found Lugo. Introducing John Smoltz.

Barring a return of shoulder tendinitis, the future Hall of Famer Smoltz could well be a starter in the post season.

On Saturday, the Cardinals became an official participant in that postseason.

So the clubhouse - then the hotel - was rocking Saturday night (and early Sunday, I’m sure) in Denver. Just like so many hotels a year ago after Obama accepted the Democratic nomination for president.

He won the big race that followed. Will the Cardinals?

Stay tuned. The best – or worst – is yet to come.

Alvin A. Reid is editor of the St. Louis Argus and a weekend host on the new ESPN 101.1 FM. His weekly Major League Baseball - St. Louis Cardinals column, which is now published on The Beacon website, was honored by the Missouri Press Association as Best Sports Column in 2004 and 1999. He is co-author of the book, "Whitey's Boys: A Celebration of the 1982 World Champion St. Louis Cardinals" and was a member of the inaugural staff of USA TODAY Baseball Weekly.